Oberst-ing with mediocrity
Parking on Cannery Row Friday night was unbelievably heinous. By the time we'd walked the three blocks from our parking spot on Gleaves (which smelled vaguely of piss), Oklahoma's Evangelicals had nearly wrapped their brief semi-psychedelic set upstairs. The crowd was wall-to-wall with a homogenous mix of middle-aged Easy Listening types, sedentary-looking 30-year-olds in Led Zeppelin shirts and enthused youngsters. There were, however, surprisingly few mascara'd hipsters in their sisters' jeans—our first cue that Conor Oberst is no longer the icon he once was. The man of the hour took the stage with his Mystic Valley Band in an anticlimactic manner, whispering "thanks" into the mic and counting off his first number. We immediately noticed that Oberst's trademark forlorn whimpering has smoothed out a bit. Though his inflection is still somewhat whiny and self-indulgent, Oberst's ability to sustain a respectable vocal melody has improved greatly, and his steadier cadence carries the unmistakably country/Western chord progressions of the Mystic Valley Band through each lengthy verse. Oberst's wistful lyrics remain, but the clattering wall of instrumentation common in Bright Eyes songs has been replaced by twangy, wandering guitars and swelling keys. Oberst's presence was at times dull, though occasional waltzes and his frequent guitar-as-shotgun poses à la Johnny Cash proved he's a student of the greats. Oberst's cover of "Corrina, Corrina" (though a noble attempt) proved a bit labored and disingenuous. We probably could have caught a more authentic version of it at any honky-tonk on Lower Broad. It became clear that rock 'n' roll's former wunderkind now has the ability to land with a broad audience the very moment a dude wearing an Auburn visor and cargo shorts bumped into us while dancing wildly to a song that was relatively down-tempo. Deciding that an hour in the Mystic Valley was more than enough, we skipped the encore to head south on Eighth to a show that was rumored to have free cobbler and some choice local music.
Nashville alumna Lindsay Powell, a.k.a. Cake Bake Betty, and her sister act, Festival, put together a bill that was a real sisterhood of the traveling troubadesses. Leading off was Kelli Shay Hix, who stared into the audience as if she was bravely facing a firing squad, her delicate voice matched by the vulnerability of her minor-tinged ballads. The set seemed to gain the most momentum when she switched over to autoharp. One thing was evident from the beginning—this was going to be a quiet show, with a quiet audience, and we mean library quiet. It was a reserved crowd. There was even a baby in attendance. During the show you could hear a pin drop, except in the instance when a performer would crack a joke. That was the case a few times with Sharon Van Etten, who was quick to establish a rapport with the attentive audience, capitalizing on it to display her impressive vocal prowess through a strong set of moody post-traumatic folk tunes. Looking almost like a female Conor Oberst, Van Etten used her tom-boyish charm in harmony with her angelic voice, endearing her to the crowd. Next up, Festival got all Cafe Wha? on our asses with their own brand of whimsical, wintry folk. While the execution of the songs was a bit stripped down compared to their recordings, they were nonetheless sprawling and enrapturing. The set featured guest appearances by members of JEFF and Lampchop. The latter's William Tyler provided some excellent effect-laden guitar wizardry, taking the set to the next level of cinematic beauty. Tyler was not only an ace up the sleeve for Festival, but also for Cortney Tidwell. There was much solidarity between performers and many aesthetic similarities. The same adjectives could describe each set: haunting, melancholy, atmospheric, ethereal. But it was Tidwell who embodied these qualities with the greatest authority. Her set was, simply put, a thing of beauty, at first seeming like the final act in the night's sonic continuum, but culminating in a psychedelic freak-out that, after the earlier performers' restraint, provided the perfect catharsis.
OK, so we got there late—but we just couldn't leave the house until we'd seen Michael Phelps race for his third gold medal. Though headliner Bon Iver has garnered widespread midlevel buzz, it was a Monday night—and Nashville. So, imagine our surprise when we arrived at 10 of 10 to a line around the block. Exit/In owner Josh Billue chuckled and explained, "We opened the doors at 8 but no one got here until 9:30." Maybe they were all waiting on Phelps too. Inside, opener AA Bondy was doing his best guy-with-a-guitar thing as the crowd got settled. The former Verbena frontman has reinvented himself as a folk troubadour, and we had a hard time really engaging with his spare, twangy tunes—it's just hard to make an impact with that kind of stuff in this town, especially when you're competing with an inattentive room. In between sets, we tried to work ourselves into good position to hear Bon Iver, and finally settled for a relatively open spot in the middle. But something gave us pause—there was a quartet to our left that looked like trouble. We turned to our companion and warned, "Those four are on a double date. The girls could not care less about the music." Oh, were we ever right. Drunk and giddy, they alternated between chatting at full volume, exclaiming to their dates, "This band is good!" and swaying nonsensically into our shoulder. Good thing Bon Iver was absolutely excellent. Guiding his band through every song off the project's debut album, songwriter Justin Vernon jumped in and out of his wonderfully tenuous falsetto. The band also took those songs, which are slyly weird on the recordings, and pushed them into harsh, dissonant places, augmenting bridges with squalling guitars and syncopated drum thwacks. By the time Vernon asked the crowd to join him for a sing-along on his final song "The Wolves (Act I & II)," he had us in the palm of his hand. When the band returned for an encore, one particularly enthusiastic fan started screaming "For Emma" so loudly that we thought someone was yelling "Free Bird." Vernon obliged, and then invited local singer-songwriter Sarah Siskind onstage for the last song of the night. He explained that he had been obsessed with her song "Lovin's for Fools" for years, and had gotten in the habit of closing shows with it. He seemed extremely moved to be sharing the stage with her—and even asked the bartenders to stop running receipts so the mood could be perfect. Gold medal.
You will go to the Nashville Cream 2-Year Anniversary Party August 23 at Mercy Lounge. Don't send any excuses to firstname.lastname@example.org.