With the bulky billing of the Current Sessions at the Fitz: Conor Oberst, the only thing fans were guaranteed from the first-ever 89.3 the Current event was a career-spanning retrospective from the adored Bright Eyes leader. A straight-up Conor Oberst solo show by any other name, the stripped-down affair saw the quivering Nebraskan taking his devoted fanbase to church.
The Fitzgerald was half-full when Current DJ Mary Lucia came out to introduce the new series, counterintuitively instructing the crowd to turn off their cell phones – but be sure to tweet along! Knockout Mynabirds frontwoman Laura Burhenn served as the night’s opener, and was dressed for the theater in a little black dress and more gold chains than a rapper.
Filled with nimble looping and accompanied by a seemingly Amish multi-instrumentalist, Burhenn’s set featured minimalist takes on her Mynabirds catalog. There were some lyrical clunkers (“What We Gained in the Fire” loftily repeats "what we lose in the fire, we gain in the flood." Hmm, not always
). But “Cake Parade,” a track from Burhenn’s Georgie James project inspired by a friend lost in the USS Cole attack, more than compensated. A smoky cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” was billed as the greatest love song of all-time. Burhenn closed with “Generals,” a revolutionary call-to-arms performed to a less-than-revolutionary public radio audience. In all, it was a keenly-executed set that straddled the self-effacing Omaha Sound and the Mynabird’s confident blue-eyed soul.
Following a brief intermission (so yeah, it was different than a plain old concert in that regard), the man of the evening was greeted with rock-star enthusiasm. Oberst, with shoulder-length hair and a hallow-bodied guitar, tore into “Lifted” opener “The Big Picture,” riling the crowd as the song descended into angsty shouts (at 32, he’s still got it!). The acoustic plucks of “First Day of My Life” were met with raucous applause; Oberst, who delivered the track with boyish pluck, performed a dark lyrical switch-up at the end, subbing in “I’m really feeling lucky” for “I really you think you like me.” Is Oberst giving up on finding someone, instead pegging his hopes on the lottery? Sure, why not.
The Mystic Valley Band’s “Common Knowledge” served as the first bit of non-Bright Eyes fare, and hardly resonated on the same level. “I guess they found out Jesus has a wife,” Oberst said prior to “Lenders in the Temple,” a religious-themed nugget off his first solo LP. “That makes me feel a lot more comfortable about my upbringing.” He was then joined by Burhenn on piano for “Classic Cars,” a confused ode to a cougar who apparently sexed him up in California (this is documented on Bright Eye’s “Cassadaga.”) The state “makes ya crazy” Oberst said.
Oberst asked for darker lighting before "Amy in the White Coat," a chilling number concerning a molested child. “I’m Wide Awake”-era standout “At the Bottom of Everything” ended in a surprise shred-fest with his lone musical companion, a multi-instrumentalist who’s apparently from around here; it was met with roars from the crowd. “Might be the time to go to the bathroom if you have a cold, black heart,” Oberst instructed before debuting a sentimental new acoustic number, one that he informed us is being used in an upcoming film soundtrack. There was a winning, stripped-down take on “Shell Games,” a rocking track off Bright Eyes’ latest, “The People’s Key;” the sparse treatment actually benefited the rousing cut. “Map of the World” was the lone Monsters of Folk entry into the set.
In the yuckiest moment of the night, Oberst informed us that he "likes to raw-dog it, but sometimes you need a little protection,” slipping on a foam microphone cover before a less-yucky take on the painful, twangy Bright Eyes song “Laura Laurent.” Late-era Mystic Valley track “Breezy” demonstrated some lyrical stumbles, such as “Tried to teach me about baseball/My favorite was the part when they make it home/I like it when they steal, and when they make it home.” OK, Conor.
But the people got what they wanted for an encore: Bright Eyes aplenty. “An Attempt to Tip the Scales” ended in warring guitars between Oberst and his musical partner, with Burhenn lending vocals; politically-charged country rouser “Make War” was a definite crowd-pleaser. He could have littered the set with lesser solo material, but he was generous and self-aware enough to realize that's not the red meat fans are after.
After apologizing for ending on a sour note, Oberst exited with a solo acoustic take on “Milk Thistle,” an aching lament off his first solo disc about addiction, death, politics and failure. But it didn’t depress the audience at the Fitz. The hungry pack of Oberst loyalists – a diverse mix of young and old – were treated to an intimate, career-spanning slice of Oberst, exactly what the clunkily-billed debut of the Current Sessions at the Fitz promised.