Newport Folk Festival: Conor Oberst

My expectation for Conor Oberst’s set on Sunday was that the entire audience would be bawling their eyes out to every song as they sung along. But as I glanced around the crowd at the Fort stage, I was surprised to see that everybody appeared dry-eyed and content– no emotional breakdowns here. Known as being some of the best music to listen to on a rainy day and get bummed out to, Conor Oberst and his lyrics often go straight to the heart, and it’s easy to understand some people’s level of obsession with him and with Bright Eyes.  So then I thought, do Conor Oberst’s songs make Conor Oberst cry? I was intrigued to find out, but it seemed that once he took off his sunglasses, my theory was false.

If Oberst had continued his set in the way he began it, I’m sure I would have heard more sniffles from the audience, but as it were, Oberst only performed by himself for the first three songs, and then he kept inviting more and more guests on the stage and bringing up the energy level of the performance, making it almost impossible to get too hung up on the sadness in the first songs he played.

When he came onstage, Oberst sat down in a wooden chair and broke into the Bright Eyes song “The Big Picture”. His sensitive voice was clear as day as he sat strumming on his acoustic guitar, and the folks in the crowd got psyched for Bright Eyes staple “First Day Of My Life”, to which they sung along wholeheartedly. Next he sung his song “Lenders In The Temple” before abandoning his solo act and inviting the girls of First Aid Kit to join him on the Fort stage for a few songs. Together they sung “Never trust a heart that’s so bent it can’t break” in “Classic Cars”, and then the three of them performed “Lua”, in which First Aid Kit sang a few of the verses, making pretty harmonies together.

For the next song, “Soul Singer In A Session Band”, Oberst brought Dawes onto the stage, so he was now playing with a full band. Oberst started getting rowdy with this new company, changing up the pace of the show significantly. Later on, Oberst invited Monsters of Folk cohort Jim James onstage, just as James had done for him the night before. James arrived wielding an umbrella, and he joined in on vocals for one of the highlights of the show, when he and Oberst performed “At The Bottom Of Everything”.

Following that, Dawes returned to the stage for a song Oberst dedicated to all the actors in the crowd; he said that friend and fellow musician Gillian Welch had told him that any musician looking for a successful career has to also be an actor, and then they launched into “Method Acting”.

Conor Oberst ended up being one of the highlights of the festival for me, but I would have liked to see him playing more songs by himself; sure, it’s great to bring tons of friends onstage to share that mindset of community in music, but Oberst simply did not leave himself enough spotlight to wow the crowd with his own talents, and I’d be surprised to find that I was the only one who wanted more of the simple, solo-acoustic Oberst that makes his music so beautifully heartbreaking.

By Sarah Ruggiero
Photos by Sherwin Su

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