If any of you had the pleasure of dining on the Milwaukee Riverwalk on the beautiful Saturday night this weekend, you may have noticed a line of at least 100 people lined up on Wells and around the corner from the Pabst Theater. These folks were diehard Conor Oberst fans waiting to score the best seats in the house to see the seasoned folk-rocker. Oberst, who has been releasing recordings since age 13, dropped his latest solo album Upside Down Mountain on May 20th. The album was well-received by both his fans and critics who commended his 70s-rock vibe, instrumental mixing, and consistently stellar songwriting. Creating equal amounts of hype was the fact that Oberst would be joined onstage by alt-Americana band Dawes. In the quickly-filled Pabst, the vibe was thick with expectation for the convergence of these two musical talents.
Promptly at 8:01 PM, Dawes made their way onto the stage. From the beginning of their set to the end, the four members of Dawes absolutely wowed me with their robust sound that was complemented by poetic lyrics and peppered with expertly executed guitar solos. Lead singer Taylor Goldsmith showcased stunningly clean vocals and seemingly effortless attention to detail on the guitar. Whether wailing along to the chorus of “When My Time Comes,” or swaying to the sounds of an organ during the Dylan-esque ballad “Time Spent in Los Angeles,” the audience had a great collective response to Dawes. A few more songs that stood out included “Fire Away,” “A Little Bit Of Everything,” and “Most People.”
As for Oberst, I had always admired him for his delicately quavering voice, stripped-down acoustic style, and unique way with words. However, when it came to his show, there was nothing delicate or stripped-down about it. When messy-haired Oberst stepped into the spotlight at 9:30, he set off what became a high-energy rock-a-thon that had fans in the front jumping, dancing, and singing at the top of their lungs. He pleased the crowd with a few hits from his band Bright Eyes including “Old Soul Song (For The New World Order),” and “Another Travelin’ Song.” Whether Oberst was pounding out the catchy chorus to “Zigzagging Toward the Light” or spinning across the stage during “Hundreds of Ways,” Dawes backed Oberst’s vigor with a cool and collected musical mastery. The power-packed set only slowed down and let the audience rest at a few points: one time featured Oberst alone with a piano with the sentimental “Ladder Song,” and another was during the encore when he played heartfelt love song “White Shoes.” While short-lived, Oberst made the most out of his selected few moments without all the rock-and-roll and reminded me just how deep and versatile his talent is. He ended the show in a grand finale with electric guitar-heavy “Roosevelt Room,” and even surfed the crowd. After the concert was over and house lights came on, I was left feeling a pang of nostalgia for Oberst’s slow and tender songs like “Cape Canaveral” and “Milk Thistle,” but realized that maybe it’s time for him to pave a new road for his artistry. His show as a whole was a testament to Oberst’s growth as a musician: he proved that he is more than a fragile voice with an acoustic guitar and he can deliver a thoroughly rollicking and thrilling performance.