At a Conor Oberst show, it’s always a gamble as to which of the singer-songwriter’s personas is going to show up. Sometimes drunk, occasionally confrontational, sometimes manic, other times mellow, the New York-via-Omaha musician’s shows are always a surprise. The Oberst who played at the Orpheum Theatre Thursday night was joking, humble and seemed genuinely happy to be there, even teasing that he wanted to move to Boston, despite the sports rivalry with his home in New York. He seemed, in general, like a guy you’d get a beer with after the show.
Accompanied by only one other musician, Oberst went through a wide range of his broad catalog, playing everything from Bright Eyes classics to tunes off of his brilliant self-titled solo album to songs from his efforts with the Mystic Valley Band. He even threw in a few new tracks.
Oberst opened the set with “The Big Picture” off of fan favorite Bright Eyes album Lifted or the Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground. One of his most haunting compositions, the song set the perfect tone for the show, and it was clear this was going to just be about lyrics and guitar. No light shows, no jumping around the stage — just music.
Between the sweet lilting melody of “First Day of My Life” and Mystic Valley Band tune “White Shoes,” Oberst joked about how he writes “infatuation songs” more than “love songs,” and how sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. “White Shoes” is one of Oberst’s prettiest songs, with the refrain “Lover anything you want to do” and the comparison of the girl in question to King David’s star and the crescent moon.
But the show wasn’t without Oberst’s unique sense of humor. Before “Lenders in the Temple” he joked about how he wished the location of the concert hadn’t been moved (the show was originally set to be at the Tremont Temple), because the song is blasphemous and he would have liked to play it in a church. And in the introduction to “Cape Canaveral” he joked (was it a joke?) about how the world was going to end soon and how we should all get on the next bus out of here (via an alien pickup outside of Mexico City).
The set featured two new songs that Oberst has been testing in live shows since the summer — “Kick,” about the Kennedys, and “You Are Your Moms,” about a young boy growing up. The first showcased his signature lyrical poetry and cultural awareness, while the second was beautifully direct, almost like a lullaby.
“At the Bottom of Everything,” Oberst’s anthem off of what is arguably Bright Eyes’ most consistently great album, was a high point halfway through the set. It was during this song that the audience really got into the show, realizing that they didn’t have to just be spectators but could join in and sing along.
Oberst ran through two tracks off the last Bright Eyes album “The People’s Key” — “Ladder Song,” on which he played piano, and “Shell Games,” which he introduced by telling the audience to imagine him sitting on a tall stool on “MTV Unplugged.”
He then closed out the regular set with the beautiful “Laura Laurent” and “Breezy.”
To finish the night, Oberst played a three-song encore of “An Attempt to Tip The Scales,” “Lua” and “Waste of Paint,” the last two of which inspired word-for-word sing-a-longs from the audience.
The show was short and sweet — a rundown of classics by one of the premiere songwriters of Oberst’s generation. And as always, he left his audience anxious to see what he would do next.