Concert Review: Conor Oberst, Jim James, M. Ward (February 2, 2004, Omaha, NE)

First off, let me say how refreshing it was to come home from a show and A.) not be sore from standing for 2+ hours, B.) not reek of cigarette smoke, and C.) not be annoyed from having dealt with a crowd of noisy, obnoxious scene kids. It’s a very rare thing in Omaha, seeing as how most shows are in smoke-filled clubs and bars where people often seem more concerned with being seen than being quiet and attentive to the artist they paid good money to see.

But tonight’s show was in Witherspoon Hall, down in the bowels of Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum — a lovely theatre that stood in stark contrast to the cold, poor acoustics-ridden dives one would normally attend to see any of the 3 artists (well, 4 really, but more on that later) that graced the stage. Tonight’s show was labelled a night of “Solo And Collaborative Performances,” and it was truly that, as M. Ward, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) wove their music together with the able talents of producer extraordinnaire Mike Mogis backing them up at nearly every turn.

My friends and I actually arrived at the show a little late, and so walked in after M. Ward had already begun his set. I did manage to catch a snippet of his cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (the one song of his I wanted to hear most of all), but unfortunately had to duck out in order to find my other friends and get to our seats (which, instead of being in the second row like we’d thought, were actually in the second row of the balcony — not bad seats, but finding them did make for a bit of awkwardness). After getting situated, I was finally able to fully enjoy Ward’s set. I’ve seen Ward several times, but this was the first time I was able to truly hear and absorb his music, and I found it subtly yet completely enthralling.

Ward’s music is deceptively simple. His laidback playing and lazy singing style — it often sounds like he’s caught in perpetual yawn — are hardly arresting. Indeed, it often seems like Ward might just nod off in the middle of his set and plop down for a little onstage nap. And yet he soon has you under his spell, his simple music revealing all sorts of little intricacies and filigrees, not to mention charm. During one of his last solo songs, Ward began looping his acoustic guitar, adding layer upon layer upon layer of simple-yet-lovely melodies, as Mogis came out to help Ward finish up his set with some gorgeous pedal steel.

As much as I was looking forward to seeing Ward, it was really Jim James who I had come to see. And the reason is simple — the man can sing. For my money, James possesses one of the most powerful and beautiful set of pipes in music these days, equal parts Wayne Coyne and Dwight Yoakam (yes, I really do mean that), as smooth as honey and as piercing as whiskey. Or to put it another way, the man could record an album of him just singing through the phonebook and I’d probably buy it.

I had seen My Morning Jacket back in October, during which James came out and did a short solo set. It was the memory of that short but sweet performance, and the hope of seeing something like that again, that made me plunk down my money for a ticket to tonight’s concert, and I was not disappointed. James was easily the best of the three vocalists, and I found it funny that during James’ collaborations with Ward and Oberst, you could hear him restraining his voice so as not to overwhelm them.

Although he performed several songs from the latest My Morning Jacket album, each one graced by a searing vocal performance that found James’ yearning voice filling the entire marble-walled auditorium to bursting, the highlight of his solo set was a performance of “Bermuda Highway,” one of my fave tracks from 2001’s At Dawn. No matter how many times I hear him sing “Oh, don’t carve me out!/Don’t let your silly dreams/Fall inbetween the crack of the bed and the wall,” the combination of those words and that voice always gets to me.

It’s a safe bet that most of the people there tonight had come to see Conor Oberst. After all, this was Omaha. I don’t think I’ve made any secret of my love/hate relationship with Oberst’s music. At times, I think he can be a powerful and compelling songwriter, capable of some very stirring and poetic imagery. And at other times, I find it all to be incredibly pretentious and melodramatic, almost bordering on self-parody.

During the first few songs of Oberst’s set, I found myself leaning towards the latter end of the spectrum. At several points during those early songs, my friend and I looked at eachother and exchanged a skeptical glance or two. With his stilted, ultra-punctuated vocal delivery and onstage mannerisms, it certainly looked like he was doing his darndest to give himself a nervous breakdown.

However, as Oberst’s set continued, I found myself getting drawn into his music in a way that I never have before, especially during a new track titled “We Are Nowhere To Be Found And It Is Now” (IIRC). And, as his set neared it’s end, I actually found myself developing a newfound respect for the guy. Stripped of much of the orchestral bombast that filled his most recent recordings, there really wasn’t anything for Oberst to hide behind, and the nakedness of it all lent additional weight and depth to his shivering performance.

Not to belittle Oberst’s performance, but I did find it interesting that, whereas Ward and James spent most of their set unaccompanied, all but one or two of Oberst’s songs featured the instrumental skills of Mike Mogis. Although Oberst obviously gets most of the attention and acclaim whenever Bright Eyes is discussed, one should not rule out Mogis’ importance. And even tonight, in such a stripped down setting, his contributions (lap steel, mandolin, dobro) added immensely to Oberst’s playing. In some ways, Mogis was the true hero of the night’s collaborations, fleshing out the performances of all 3 headliners while never claiming any of the spotlight. Such humility and skill is rare, and should definitely be lauded.

Although all of the artists drifted through eachother’s performances, lending an extra guitar here, a back-up vocal there, the set ended with several songs featuring Ward, James, Oberst, and Mogis all belting out some tunes. A stellar cover of “You Were Always On My Mind” that featured James on lead vocals notwithstanding, these collaborations were probably some of the night’s weaker moments. However, given that tonight was the first date of the tour, they still might’ve been getting used to performing with eachother’s voices.

All in all, as good a show as I could’ve asked for. Great venue (please, please, please let there be more shows there, or places like it, in the future), great atmosphere, and a trio — no, make that quartet — of great musicians. In some ways, it felt like this was the first time I had heard their music for what it truly was, and that alone made it worth every penny.

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