On a chilly, quiet Sunday evening, Madisonians patiently awaited folk rock lord Conor Oberst to roll into town. Good-hearted, flannel wearing folksters of the Midwest gathered at Capitol Theater where the Overture Center for the Arts hosted the beloved, all-American singer-song writer for a night of nostalgic reflection spanning a decade-long career’s worth of music. The day was fitting for an artist like Oberst — grey, poignant and heavy.
The set list included tunes young and old, including collaborations with Monsters of Folk and The Mystic Valley Band along with solo material. And of course, not to disappoint, there were plenty of Bright Eyes’ songs to go around, which has been Oberst’s main project for the past decade.
The night began with the hand-selected “bands-become-friends” opening act, The Mynabirds. Fronted by fellow singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn, the duo played a short set of earthy and equally eerie song selections, including writings from their newest album, “Generals.”
Laura Burhenn, a folk rocker chick wrapped up in a jangly gypsy energy, carried vocals that alternately rose from the bellows of her soul to the tippy top of garden nymph quality. Burhenn’s voice, at times cooing and crying softly, at others on the edge of breaking with rawness, perfectly met the neatly packaged guitar strums of Tom Hnatow.
As the lights dimmed, all of those in the cheap seats applauded unsurely, wondering at the small man approaching center stage with the opaque, shoulder length hair. Unrecognizable in appearance, Oberst reassured his presence at the instant his distinct, deliberate voice filled the heights of the auditorium.
In the middle of a lonely, spotlit circle, surrounded by only his instruments, Oberst began his act with a crowd-pleasing classic and suitable opener, “The Big Picture.” With each verse, Oberst spit out his lyrics with such conviction that the audience cheered at each new rise, satisfied with the evidence of the night to come. His feet seemed in constant detachment with a wiry energy, as if scrambling to run away, while his composure grounded the genuine quality of each song.
Slowing the tempo for the love song favorite called “First Day of My Life,” the rhythm was picked up once more with “At the Bottom of Everything.” This time his whole body was thrown into the melody, feet kicking and screaming behind him from the small, black industrial chair and knees sporadically clapping together.
Always proving that Oberst is more than just a man and a guitar, his songs brought with them strong story-telling powers, narratives of life’s woes, simple joys and broken promises. Each one invited the audience to sit and listen in silence as the show ran like a storybook, cover to cover.
The majority of the show blended together with a slew of poems strung together to comprise Oberst’s songs. Pausing sometimes to indulge the audience with spoken anecdotes and fleeting thoughts, each reprieve was a look into the crafted thought behind the existence that is Conor Oberst.
Watching the stage was like taking a quiet peek into an intimate moment, like flipping through yellow glowing pages of a mischievous story book while hiding cozily under the covers. The number of bodies on stage never breached a quartet, which included the periodic accompaniment of the pretty, sultry howls of Burhenn. At times, I swore I even heard comforting nighttime chirps creep in to the lyrics. Listening to lengthy tale after tale unfold, I wondered how it is that Oberst never runs of words in existence or stories of lessons learned to offer.
After a three song encore, Oberst departed the stage just the same as he came — with the quiet composure of a gentleman, hair and narrow suit tucked neatly as could be with a hand out to shake with a few eager, adoring fans.