Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band played the first of two sold-out shows at Slowdown in Oberst’s hometown of Omaha.
If you don’t think that Conor Oberst is one of the best (and most versatile) songwriters around by now, I just don’t know what to tell you.
In Bright Eyes, he’s all heart-on-the-sleeve. In Desaparecidos, it’s a punk, political growl. In the Mystic Valley Band, it’s all about getting out of town, hitting the road or staying in a house boat (among other subjects).
And his subjects are full of visceral imagery, the sort of stuff that those of us who string letters into words and words into sentences are so struck by that we wish we would have thought of first.
On Wednesday, Oberst brought the Mystic Valley Band back from cryo-freeze to play a retrospective of material from the band’s two albums, 2008′s “Conor Oberst” and 2009′s “Outer South.” (Oh, and a song or two from the group’s 2012 rarities comp, “One of Our Kind.”)
Though it was a hometown show, the crowd was decidedly not. Kids from Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere mingled with Omaha people, which brought an energy to the proceedings that Oberst and his pals fed from.
A genial Oberst, in a denim vest and black shirt, explained the meaning behind many of the band’s songs, most of which were recorded in Mexico and Texas. That Southwestern vibe rubs off on songs such as “Nikorette,” “Get-Well-Cards” and “Sausalito” and gave almost everything a summer night, singing-songs-around-the-campfire feel.
Many of those sort of tunes were energetic rips that make me, for one, want to hit the asphalt with the windows rolled down. Those numbers, as well as “NYC – Gone, Gone” and “Souled Out!!!,” were the big sort of fun numbers that got the audience all rowdy. PBRs in the air, y’all.
The volume knobs were turned up for most of the show, but “Cape Canaveral” took the concert to a quiet pace as Oberst thumped his acoustic and picked out the quiet melody. But by the last verse, the band joined Oberst’s soft melody while he spit the lyrics out like he was mad at them.
Though he’s the frontman, Oberst wasn’t the sole focus of Wednesday’s show. Nik Freitas and Taylor Hollingsworth created guitar riffs caked in sandy grit that brings the Mystic Valley Band’s sound close to classic rock riffs and dirty Neil Young folk rock.
Oberst also took a back seat to songs sung by Hollingsworth (“Air Mattress”), drummer Jason Boesel (“Difference Is Time”) and Freitas (“Big Black Nothing.”)
One of the highlights for me was the band’s version of “Wedding Day in Funeralville,” a song by John Prine (another of my favorite songwriters) that the band recorded for a compilation of Prine songs.
I also enjoyed a few songs from Milwaukee openers Shoot Down the Moon.
MiWi La Lupa was the early highlight. Born Michael Williams, the man strung together several singer-songwriter songs that were as touching as Oberst’s and every bit as torn open and raw. He was joined by Timothy Allen on guitar and Omahans Ben Brodin on bass and Roger Lewis on drums. I expect big things from the guy, so keep your ear out. (Also check out Williams and Allen on Friday at Pageturners.)
During Oberst’s set, he thanked both bands for traveling across the country to play with the Mystic Valley Band. Throughout the night, Oberst was pretty chatty, and he told a lot of stories about how his songs were written, what they mean to him and how he shows them to friends.
He also told a funny story about how many of his MVB tunes are about getting out of town even though, as he sings in “One of Our Kind,” “I’ll probably die here.”
His best story, before the band played “Sausalito,” was about making decisions to move away to New York and California.
“I remember one time, my dear friend who is a great songwriter in his own right, Tim Kasher, announced to me: ‘I’m going to Des Moines,’” Oberst said to a lot of laughs and cheers. “That’s when I knew he was crazy.”
o NYC – Gone, Gone
o Souled Out!!!
o Slowly, Oh So Slowly
o Danny Callahan
o To All the Lights in the Windows
o Air Mattress
o Wedding Day in Funeralville
o Cape Canaveral
o Difference is Time
o One of My Kind
o I Got the Reason #2
o Big Black Nothing
o Roosevelt Room
o I Don’t Wanna Die (In the Hospital)