Conor Oberst Plays the Hits

The Bright Eyes frontman discusses his recent two-month, two-city residency, reuniting with Phoebe Bridgers, and playing some of his deep cuts for the first time in 20 years.

Music Features Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst Plays the Hits

Conor Oberst is a bit tired these days. When we hop on the phone together on a Friday afternoon, he’s not even 24 hours removed from wrapping up his two-month residency in Los Angeles and New York. For the last eight weeks, he’s been playing one show a week at the Teragram and Bowery Ballrooms, respectively—performing with new musicians every night and drafting setlists that draw from not just Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk and Better Oblivion Community Center, but the entire Conor Oberst songbook. The Conor Oberst and Friends “tour,” which concluded on April 25th, was a resounding success, if not one that will likely never happen again—or, at the very least, not for a long time. Legend has it that Oberst and his booking agent Eric Dimenstein had been talking about doing a tour of that scale for years now—so, why was 2024 the right time for it to actually happen?

“I wish I could say that I have some mastermind person orchestrating my career,” Oberst says. “Typically, I kind of make a lot of decisions on circumstance—I wouldn’t say on the fly, obviously you’ve gotta plan stuff out. But I don’t think there was really a super specific reason for why now, other than it fell in this nice valley between different projects. It really worked out, and it was nice.” Oberst splits his time between Los Angeles and Omaha, so the California month of the tour was really just four hometown shows in a row. For a while, he lived in New York, too, so spending a month in the city meant he had a good excuse to see some old friends. “There was definitely a good bit of, once we decided that [the tour] was gonna happen, calling friends and seeing who’s in town,” Oberst continues. “Everything fell into place like it was. It was great how many people were able to contribute to all the different shows.”

About 50 musicians took the stage alongside Oberst across the eight shows, including Phoebe Bridgers, Joanna Sternberg, Lee Renaldo, LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang, M. Ward, Jeff Parker and the Strokes’ Nikolai Fraiture. For each show, Oberst elected one “music director” who would help create the setlists and assemble the bands. This title was bestowed upon folks like Macey Taylor, Nate Walcott, Maria Taylor, Jim Keltner, Miwi La Lupa, James Felice and Nick Zinner—all of whom proved to be beyond crucial to the tour’s success. “As much as I would like to be, I’m not as organized as I would need to be to pull all of this off by myself,” Oberst admits. “It was great to have a point guard for each week.”

There weren’t many rules or restraints for these gigs, except for one massive bullet point: “I wanted to make sure that none of the songs repeated in L.A. and no songs repeated in New York,” Oberst says, meaning that “Poison Oak” was available in limited quantities. It helped keep each setlist fresh, and it allowed for Oberst to dig deeper into his own catalog than ever before—which is how you get a show that features both “Barbary Coast (Later)” and “Comet Song” (a sight I am jealous to have not been present for) or a jazzier take on Oberst’s explicitly non-jazz music. Many likely saw the “Conor Oberst & Friends” poster and assumed the Bright Eyes bandleader was going to try and assemble the most famous group of players possible, but, in reality, the people who took the stage with him were, more times than not, folks who’ve left an impression on him during his time living on both coasts.

“Some things were obvious, as far as who was going to be in the band, but then, other times, it was leaning on [the music directors], like, ‘Okay, we want some horn players this week, or it’d be cool if we could get an accordion player or two drummers.’ They are all my friends, they aren’t famous composers or anything like that. They’re my friends, and [we] just talked [each show] through, trying to figure out what would be the coolest thing we could do with the people we’re around and working with.”

One of the coolest things that did happen during the residency happened during Zinner’s week, when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs multi-instrumentalist wanted the band to play “True Blue”—a 20-year-old lullaby that Oberst wrote for his nephew. “My nephew is now in his twenties but, when he was four years old, his favorite color was blue and [‘True Blue’] is probably the most happy, childlike song I have,” Oberst says, laughing. “I thought it was pretty hilarious that Nick wanted to perform that. I think of him as this mysterious, dark guy, but he really wanted to do it.” On the last gig of the tour, Oberst and Alex Levine of the So So Glos brought in Denver Dalley to perform five Desparecidos songs onstage before closing with “Lua.” “I was happy that Denver could come and do that, because that was a special thing—I didn’t know we’d ever play those songs again,” Oberst says. “That was Alex’s idea and, at first, I was like, ‘I don’t know, Denver just had his third child in four years. Now he’s like a fireman in Wisconsin. I don’t know if he can make the trip.’ But he did, and that was great.”

The way the shows were set up—rehearsal Sunday through Wednesday and then curtains on Thursday—might suggest that a bit of chaos was involved. But even with a large coterie of players involved, Oberst maintains that everyone is such a pro that there were very few missteps, attributing a lot of the chemistry to familiarity—having toured with the Felice Brothers often and, when Maria Taylor was music director, it was all old school, “memory lane” Bright Eyes members from the early 2000s. The week that Zinner was in charge proved to be the most difficult, but not in a consequential way. “The Zinner week was, I wouldn’t say nerve-wracking, but there were a couple of people that I’ve met—like Nikolai from the Strokes and Nancy from LCD [Soundsystem]—but I’ve never played music with them before.”

So, when you’re someone like Conor Oberst—who has written and released, in some capacity, at least 500 songs, and you only have a few days to practice a brand new 15-song setlist every week with musicians you either have never played with before or, quite possibly, haven’t played with in two decades—what do you learn about yourself as a performer or as a songwriter when it’s all said and done? “I feel a little bit rejuvenated, in the sense that it was a big undertaking and I got through it more or less unscathed,” he says with a chuckle. “There definitely were some moments of doubt, or just feeling overwhelmed. I just kept telling myself every week, ‘Okay, you can’t start thinking about the whole big picture of it.’ I would start to have a panic attack, so I just kept being like, ‘Okay, you just gotta think about this week. And then, once this week’s over, think about next week.’ Get through the show and then, Friday and Saturday, I would let myself start worrying about the next week or start listening to the songs that we’re gonna have to do the next week. Eight weeks of doing that, and I guess I feel like I’m kind of a somewhat capable musician.”

The first week in Los Angeles was supposed to feature Dawes and Jonathan Wilson, but scheduling conflicts got in the way. Luckily, as Oberst puts it, “serendipity intervened” and M. Ward was in town during those days and was able to come be a part of the band. So, that opening gig at the Teragram became extra special, because it reunited two members of Monsters of Folk. Ward and Oberst have remained close since their supergroup’s disbandment in 2010, appearing on the same festival bills or singing a couple of songs together. There was even a European run of dates where M. Ward opened for Bright Eyes once upon a time. Years ago, Ward opened for Brian Wilson at the Hollywood Bowl and reached out to Oberst and Jim James out of the blue—asking his former bandmates if they’d come sing some Monsters of Folk songs with him at the show. “Over the years, whenever our paths cross and we’re on the same bill, we’ll get up on stage with each other,” Oberst says.

Nick Zinner’s inclusion as musical director for the penultimate New York show was especially great, given his involvement in the 2005 Bright Eyes album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn—and the band’s subsequent tour that year. And when Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott was in charge in Los Angeles, he, Jeff Parker and the band gave Oberst’s oeuvre a jazzy makeover. While Oberst was, perhaps, somewhat out of his element at times, it was another opportunity to give his music some different color and help his fans see those songs in a new light. “That was definitely the farthest from what I would normally do, as far as the different bands over the eight weeks,” he says, “but, I knew what I was getting into. This club in Highland Park called ETA, and I’d seen Parker [play there]. I knew what was coming at me, but I didn’t exactly know how it was going to apply to my songs. Nate was there, I knew it was all going to be cool—because he, obviously, is well-versed in all of my songs and he’s played with those people before. If I was in there without Nate, I probably wouldn’t have known what to say to them. They have their own language of things that I can’t speak.”

But a language that Oberst does know how to speak in rehearsal and onstage occurred when his Better Oblivion Community Center partner Phoebe Bridgers showed up to sing “Lua,” “My City” and “Double Life” with him during the encore. Given that, since Better Oblivion Community Center came out in 2019, Bridgers has become one of the few indie musicians to really cross over into the mainstream in a real, impressionable way, that reunion was one of the most memorable for Oberst. “I love her dearly, and it’s one of those ones where it’s like, from the minute I met her, I knew that she was gonna change my life. And that proved to be the case,” he says. “I hadn’t got a chance to play music with her in such a long time, and it’s always going to be something that I love to do. More than anything, it was cool to spend time together and sing together again.”

The inclusion of “Lua” runs far deeper than just being one of the best parts of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; it was actually one of the first songs Oberst and Bridgers ever played together. “In the summer of 2016, we played on the same bill, and then she came out a couple months later to Omaha and we did a little show at my bar, Pageturners,” he says. “It was the first time we actually sang on stage together, and we did that song. [It was] a full-circle situation and, the next year, we went on tour for Ruminations, my record, and it was just me and Neely [Jenkins] onstage playing and Phoebe was opening. But she ended up singing every night with us. It’s been a really good, long, winding road.”

The Conor Oberst & Friends tour hasn’t just been an excuse to play, quite literally, close to one-half of Oberst’s catalog; it’s been an opportunity to play some cover songs and really stretch out as an ensemble. In Los Angeles, the bands covered the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular”; in New York, they tackled Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town,” the Replacements’ “Little Mascara,” “Thin Lizzy’s “Running Back” and Fred Eaglesmith’s “Trucker Speed”—the latter of which was first shown to Oberst by Bridgers years ago. The ‘Mats are one of Oberst’s favorite bands, while the “Running Back” inclusion is a nod to the Bright Eyes “make-believe” radio stations they made during the pandemic.

But one of the biggest takeaways from the residency is that Oberst played “Don’t Know When But a Day is Gonna Come” for the first time in 17 years and “False Advertising” for the first time in 13. Dusting off those dormant tracks proved to be a worthwhile risk taken, as Nick Zinner was incredibly keen on playing them at the Bowery—despite Oberst having some reservations. “I was like, ‘Man, there’s a lot of words,’ but he saw the vision—because that night, we had Clark Baechle from the Faint and Brian Chase from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs up on two drum sets,” he says. “On the record, there’s so many strings and orchestral stuff. I was like, ‘Is that gonna translate?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s gonna be great. Nancy from LCD, she’ll build strength up on the keyboard.’ That was one that I didn’t have a little hesitancy about, but I think it came out pretty good. ‘False Advertising,’ same thing: [Zinner] wanted to do that one. Between his guitar and Renaldo and Nancy on the keys, they could approximate the orchestral elements in a way that worked out. Those two songs were a bit of a gamble.”

At the beginning of the final night’s encore, Oberst and his band—helmed by Levine—played “Messenger Bird’s Song” for the first time since 2002, when it was released on the There Is No Beginning To the Story EP—between Oh Holy Fools and LIFTED or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Era to the Ground. It was a moment that punctuated everything the Conor Oberst & Friends tour set out to do in the first place, to not play anything safe and to not let any songs go unplayed—even the ones that haven’t been touched in 22 years. “It actually felt really good [to play ‘Messenger Bird’s Song],” Oberst says. “I don’t think it was my finest hour as a lyricist, but I was like, ‘Oh, this chorus is actually really catchy.’ I was feeling the chorus, it was unexpected.”

I ask Oberst if, when he’s done recovering from these two months, heads back to Omaha to be with his three-year-old dog and figures out what the next Bright Eyes tour eventually will become, if he’s going to adopt this collaborative, gamble-forward setlist template in the future—minus the hasty, rigorous four-day rehearsals, of course. “I think there’s always the fun and excitement of pulling out random old songs,” he says. “And I’ve always kind of done that, over the years.” But what Oberst tries to emphasize to me is that, even though there are some musical savants in the world who can remember every single song they’ve written without so much as a single practice, he and his band can’t do that. “When someone yells out a song, it’s like, I literally can’t play it. You don’t want to hear me attempt to play it, because it’ll be terrible,” he adds. Instead, he and Bright Eyes will rehearse for a week before every tour and put together a collection of 30 songs to choose from.

“We pretty quickly, after a few shows, if there’s some songs that aren’t working or just don’t sound as good as the others, then you start to lose a few,” Oberst says. “Then you’re, at least for me, down to, maybe, 25 songs and you’re playing between 18 and 20 a night—so you have a few alternatives. But, I’m not pulling some crazy song from 15 years ago out of the blue because, one, the band wouldn’t know it. It’s different if you’re in an actual band and it’s the same people all the time, but I’ve never had that—because Bright Eyes, it’s me plus whoever’s in the band, which can range from the three of us to 14. It’s never the same people. When someone yells out a song, I know it’s coming from a very sweet place, but I literally can’t play it. ‘You wouldn’t want to hear me trying to remember it right now.’ That’s what practice is for: me trying to remember.”

That isn’t to say that the Conor Oberst & Friends residency was a one-time deal. But don’t expect Oberst to try it again anytime soon. I think about that line in “Lua,” though—the one that goes “Me, I’m not a gamble, you can count on me to split”—and how Oberst has outpaced his own laments. Not many of our heroes from the early 2000s have stuck around. So, while the two-month, two-city tour does feel like an exercise or one big opportunity to practice the hits of yesteryear or, even, less than a decade ago, it also registers as a celebration—of Oberst, of the music he’s written, of the people he’s met along the way and of the people he’s yet to meet. And he was feeling that, too, especially on the eve after it was all over.

“I’m 44 now and I’ve been doing this whole thing—being in bands and on tour—since I was 14 years old, and you meet a bunch of people on the way,” Oberst says. “And it’s hard to hold on to everybody. It’s impossible, honestly. But the ones that do stand the test of time—people that I’ve known for 25 years—playing music together is pretty special. That is something that definitely does not go unnoticed. I feel grateful to have those kinds of friends and to know that many talented people that I can just reach out to and they’re excited to play music again and play my songs. That’s one of the more gratifying feelings or gratifying things about this whole weird life.”

You can find playlists of all eight Conor Oberst & Friends sets here.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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