Politics, Protest, & Authentic Art: Conor Oberst At The Boulder Theater

By: Hannah Oreskovich

Conor Oberst had a three-show stint in Colorado over the weekend before his official Ruminations and Salutations tour kicks off later this July. His Saturday Boulder spot was sandwiched between a performance at Denver’s The Ogden Friday and a Mishawaka Amphitheatre set Sunday. Having become known to the masses for his work in Bright Eyes in the late 90s and early 2000s, Oberst has also had a successful solo career and spent time playing in projects like Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk, and Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band.

 Conor Oberst.

Conor Oberst.

But beyond his talent instrumentally and vocally, Oberst has an appeal on a much more honest level: he writes at times of the working man’s experience and in protest of conservative politics, and let’s face it- in a time where excess is often flaunted in popular music and Instagram celebrities promote music festivals more than the performers themselves, it’s refreshing to have an artist speaking to the working class hero. It’s hard not to speculate Oberst’s Midwest roots attribute to this storytelling (his father worked for Omaha’s Union Pacific Railroad), and it says something that Oberst remains based in The Good Life of Nebraska, a place he has arguably curated a music scene within through his label Saddle Creek Records. Either way, Oberst is one of those artists who, at times, speaks for the middle class of society, whether it’s in his protest songs or in his storytelling. And this theme from some of Oberst’s work hit hard at his show in Boulder last Saturday.

 Oberst and his band.

Oberst and his band.

Oberst opened the show with his recent hit “Barbary Coast (Later)” from Ruminations, then threw it back to Bright Eyes’ “Four Winds.” His backing band was excellent- James Felice held down piano/accordion, Parker Taylor Wesley Hollingsworth rocked out on guitar, Billy Lawrence was on drums, Chris Felice licked bass, and Gregory Farley smashed on violin. Oberst’s set also included a Monsters of Folk cover (“Map of the World”), a couple of tracks from his Mystic Valley project (“Ten Women” and final closer “Roosevelt Room”), and several other Bright Eyes tunes. Oberst even shared a new, unrecorded track as the first song of three in his encore, “No One Is Going To Change.”

But throughout his set, current politics entered the scene, most often in Oberst’s musings with the crowd. He discussed the recent New Jersey government shutdown, “sending out” his song “Empty Hotel By The Sea” to Chris Christie himself, rather fittingly some might say, as Christie is spending the Fourth of July in his private beach house near Island Beach State Park, which will be closed from the public for the holiday this year thanks to the shutdown.  

Later, Oberst went on a couple of anti-Trump rants, calling Trump “an orange bloated f*cked up rat” and a “racist, misogynistic piece of sh*t” while simultaneously “sending out” songs for Trump as well, including the evening’s closer from his Mystic Valley Band days, “Roosevelt Room.” The lines, “And I’d like to write my congressman/But I can’t afford the stamp” and “Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on/Are doing double shifts tonight” were emphasized, and some might argue they felt rather appropriately weighted in some ways, given several of Trump’s recently signed executive orders and the pending Senate healthcare bill.

Still, the mood of the show wasn’t entirely set on Oberst’s protest and politics.

Said Oberst about their short Colorado stint, “I talked to these guys- the band- and they all wanted to come out here and eat gummy bears, and go on hikes, and take pictures of bugs, so it’s been great.”

Comments like these garnered a lot of laughter from the crowd. Oberst and his band had incredible energy, and there was a rock’n’roll flare true to Desaparecidos mixed with Oberst’s more singer/songwriter Americana vibes. It was honest art- there were no large-scale production elements and Conor clearly didn’t care where anyone else’s politics stood- he just spoke his truths and shared the stage with some incredible instrumentalists telling stories that ranged in theme from love to protest to Middle America with a couple of harangues. And it’s that sort of authenticity that makes his current tour worth putting on your radar.

Keep up with Conor Oberst here. And see our full photo gallery from this show at this link.

-Hannah

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All photos per the author. All videos and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.