We’re out on the thumb here in New England, not really on the way to anywhere, and what that sometimes means for logistics is that we’re the first stop on someone’s tour. That was the case last night when Conor Oberst and band defied the rain and triumphed over a ridiculous Beauty and the Beast castle backdrop to deliver a really enchanting night of outdoor music at Prescott Park in Portsmouth.
This gig was not only the first of an eleven night run through the East Coast and Midwest but very likely the first live performance ever for this line-up. The band features Miwi La Lupa , who has often played with Oberst and also put out a killer album of his own on Oberst’s Team Love Records a couple years ago. (Ended Up Making Love. Listen to it!) On bass is Stephanie Drootin, who plays with a couple Saddle Creek bands. Oberst referred to this group of musicians as “family” so chances are the drummer and keyboard player are also part of that extended Omaha network of his.
Oberst opened with “I Won’t Ever be Happy Again (great title for Conor song…) from a little-known 2008 compilation album called Rock the Net. Little known to me at any rate. In fact, I got pretty excited thinking this was a new unrecorded song and told my concert-mate Katie that it was possibly the first time he’d ever played it live, but I suppose that’s not the case. Before he launched into “Trees Get Wheeled Away,” he mused that he had written up the setlist and sent it to the band awhile ago, and now he was kind of shaking his head over some of his obscure choices. Also from his rarities album was “Blue Angels Air Show,” which begins “Claire’s turning blonde for the summer I guess” and which he dedicated to his cousin, one of his best friends “who is really ticked at me right now.”
Guitarist La Lupa did double duty adding color with horn parts, as did the keyboard player, and I wonder if maybe knowing that he had a couple of talented horn players Oberst chose songs that had either been recorded with horns (like “Hundreds of Ways”) or lent themselves nicely to them.
Towards the end the band leaned more heavily into Oberst’s latest solo effort, Salutations, building to an energetic “St. Dymphna,” (“we can keep drinking til St. Dymphna kicks us out”) a paean to both the patron saint of the emotionally distrubed and to a New York City bar once frequented by both Oberst and La Lupa). The encore included a killer version of “Napalm” which used to sound kind of like Bob Dylan’s “On the Road Again,” but last night sounded more like an urgent Despercidos song.
I should also mention that before the rain let up Joanna Sternberg opened the show with a quirky set that managed to keep the audience’s attention. How to describe Sternberg? Talented. Deceptively simple lyrics. And an odd sort of awkward stage presence that was really quite endearing.
I suspect as the tour moves on this band of seasoned musicians will add more of their own flourishes to the songs. Last night they seemed to still be feeling them out, and a sound check abbreviated by the rain probably didn’t help. But these straight forward versions put the lyrics front and center, and a Conor Oberst song can always stand up to a low key arrangement, a few rain drops, or even a cheesy castle backdrop from a children’s play.