King of the not-so-sad sad song: Conor Oberst at The Orange Peel

Conor Oberst, left, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. Photo by Kevin Eaves, posted by @OrangeFoto on Twitter

Usually the opener is the opener and the headliner is the headliner and if the two happen to meet onstage it’s because the opener joins in for a song or two, special-guest-style. The Conor Oberst show at The Orange Peel on Friday did away with that formula. Openers Dawes played a full set of their hits and a few new songs, and then returned to the stage as Oberst’s backing band.

So, what happens when you cross the folky shoegaze of Bright Eyes (Oberst’s former stage name) with the Americana-rock of Dawes? Apparently you get an amalgamation that’s equal parts both in a surprising way. Oberst started with “Time Forgot,” the familiar catch still evident in his voice, but the former mournful tones of his songs polished by flourishes of Taylor Goldsmith’s guitar and harmony vocals.

“Sausalito” (from The Mystic Valley Band) took a country rock turn, fleshed out by Dawes’ lush instrumentation. It’s possible that the original informed Dawes’ sound. Though all of the musicians in questions are young, Oberst, at 34, is the veteran performer. He’s also 20 years into his career, which is why his show included material from so many phases in his songwriting and band trajectory.

“We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,” which Oberst introduced saying, “This one’s about purgatory,” is from his 2005 album, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. The song was sung on that record as a duet with Emmylou Harris. On the Orange Peel stage, Goldsmith took Harris’s parts and, while no one can sing like she can, the Dawes vocalist provided a nice foil to Oberst’s reedy warble.

Photo by Kevin Eaves, posted by @OrangeFoto on Twitter

For “Lonely at the Top,” from his forthcoming album, Upside Down Mountain, Oberst switched from acoustic guitar to electric. The song was slow with plenty of white space and tasteful guitar licks as Dawes took a supporting role. But at the apex, the band put out its full effort and, even with Oberst’s lyrics, it sounded like a Dawes song. Worth noting: The new album has a lot of steel guitar and the kind of slick production that would feel at home on a Dawes recording. Preview Upside Down Mountain, which releases on Tuesday, May 20, here.

“Old Soul Song,” also from I’m Wide Awake was all drama and build propelled by Griffin Goldsmith’s muscular drumming. But even there, where the band’s energy could have overwhelmed the formerly emo-ish Oberst, the marriage of styles led to a kind of heightened emotionalism. And really, Oberst isn’t the waif-y sad teenager that he once was. There’s still that trademark quaver in his voice, but he wields it with more control now. And he can belt and snarl — as he did on the agro “Haile Selassie” (from The People’s Key) and on the kick and thump of new song, “Enola Gay.” That song’s punchy angst melts, in moments, into the odd-but-successful flutter of atmospheric keyboards. On “Something Vague,” which he dedicated to his father who was in the audience, Oberst ripped at his guitar strings and jabbed at the lyrics as if they actually floated in the air in front of him.

“Hit the Switch” shuffling quickstep about isolation (“I’m completely alone at a table of friends”) that morphed into a sonic masquerade ball. New song “Double Life” played as a waltz, it’s intro an amble through shakers until the song expanded into an airy and bittersweet melancholy underscored by slide guitar played with a wah-wah. The quiet, stripped down “Artifact #1,” also from Upside Down Mountain, was a also a stand out. Deliciously melancholy, but tempered with maturity, it showcased Oberst’s progression as a songwriter. “I know I should live in the moment, but the I’d miss you all the time,” he sang.

And probably even the biggest emo-hating, warble-eschewing, rock-loving hard-heart in the audience was at least a little bit moved by the tender sentiment. And if not, they would have been hard-pressed to not appreciate how well Dawes performed the song, anyway.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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