Conor Oberst + Jenny Lewis
River to River Festival
Saturday, July 4
Conor Oberst’s labelmate Tim Kasher once sang, “I’m writing songs to entertain/ But these people, they just/ They just want pain.” It’s an apt summation of the lukewarm reaction to last year’s eponymous Conor Oberst, released to polite indifference in an indie stratosphere somewhat sick of him, and coincidentally his most upbeat, eager-to-please record. The same contingent shrugged at Jenny Lewis’s Acid Tongue, released about the same time, though some have been on her case for a while now that she’s putting out glamorama-disco fantasias about breaking up and blowjobs that flipped, respectively, cell phone and cigarette metaphors.
But you’d never know she’d plateaued the way a full Battery Park cheered as Lewis ambled onstage to the surfabilly strains of “See Fernando,” draped in an American flag on Saturday. Though it’s been a good year for patriotism, the gesture would’ve seemed snarky a few years ago, but irony doesn’t suit the Rilo Kiley frontwoman–equal parts June Carter Cash and Liz Phair–who prefers frankness to coyness. The audience loved her despite no ventures back to The Execution of All Things, and why not? A set tighter than her Daisy Dukes culled all the picks from her two solo jaunts and a haunting acoustic take on Rilo’s “Silver Lining” that propositioned the crowd to fill in their own George Harrison “doo doo doos.” Her other Harrison tribute was a perfect Traveling Wilburys cover, “Handle With Care,” that Oberst and Nik Freitas joined on, while her boyfriend/guitarist/hypeman Jonathan Rice ably filled in for Elvis Costello on the scalawag’s anthem “Carpetbaggers.” The born-again “Born Secular” was a massive ending, and the token new song surprisingly rocked, but the highlight of the evening was “Acid Tongue,” where Jenny’s full band dropped their instruments and rallied around a single mic like a Greek Chorus to the gospel-blues tune–a gimmick that seemed so simple and effective and yet I couldn’t recall a single other act I’d ever seen to do it before.
Oberst’s set was louder and longer, beginning with two of his most infectious rockers ever, the headlong stomp “NYC–Gone, Gone” and the statement-of-purpose “Souled Out!!” (“in heaven”), with a third, the unimaginably moving, yet rousing “I Don’t Want to Die (In a Hospital)” racing out the encore later. Oberst’s absurd insistence on treating Bright Eyes and his current Mystic Valley Band as separate acts is both a blessing and curse; on one hand, getting 99% of the excellent Conor Oberst is a given. On the other, we now have to contend with Outer South, this year’s, uh, shittier follow-up, with vocal contributions from the whole band, no one in which possesses Oberst’s melodic gifts or ability to turn a phrase, or even the careening intensity of his voice (which itself has mellowed these days). Hard to blame the crowd for tuning out Macey Taylor’s Blues Traveler-channeling “Worldwide” or the awkward, Taylor Hollingsworth-sung Weezer transfusion “Air Mattress,” though the band has such feverish dedication to their dad-rock direction that the momentum carried over to a few live improvements, notably the back-to-back “Ten Women” (“With two faces you’ll never be true”) and “Slowly (Oh So Slowly).” And it was hard to argue with the adorably huge-brim-hatted Oberst’s mid-set request (“Let’s get festive for fuck’s sake!”). But not reaching into his rich (and richly celebrated) downer of a Bright Eyes catalog in two hours remains a frustrating prospect, even moreso now that half of his selected catalogue arc sucks–absurdity further noted when Lewis rewarded the crowd with a Rilo Kiley cut. Sometimes the people, they just want pain.