They’re close in age, come from the same branch of folky Americana rock, and love performing at First Avenue. However, Nebraska songwriting hero Conor Oberst and Los Angeles quartet Dawes actually have less in common than you might think — which helped make them such a great couple Sunday night.
The new touring partners have each sold out First Ave on their own, so they had no trouble packing the club for the first gig in a two-night stand. Their musical pairing looked just as effortless, as they played cohesively and excitedly all night.
The Dawes fellas certainly had their work cut out for them, though. After running through an hour of their own songs, the Angeleno boys returned and played two hours as Oberst’s backing band. And they didn’t just perform the songs from his new album and leave the rest to the solitary songwriter to play solo. They delved deep into Oberst’s catalog with his acts Bright Eyes and the Mystic Valley Band.
As its warmly received opening set proved once again, Dawes is a smooth-roller sort of band. It plays with a laid-back, even-keel steadiness and a whatever-will-be-will-be sense of anti-drama, evidenced Sunday in such songs as “Time Spent in Los Angeles,” “Most People” and the new one “Right on Time.”
Oberst, by contrast, has a needle-point intensity and a go-all-out-or-go-home kind of passion — a trait that earns him both ultra-rabid followers and dismissive naysayers. Dawes provided a sturdy, launching-pad-like base for Oberst to fly off on his explosive tangents. Songs often sounded like Dawes in the beginning but Oberst by the end, building from contemplative, hippie-esque ditties into contentious, punky roarers.
Hardly going the easy route himself, the 34-year-old Omaha songwriting veteran could have hired a new band to replicate his recordings more precisely.
From the get-go the Dawes guys put their own stamp on his songs. They added a heavier, Neil Young-like reverberation to the opening tunes, “Time Forgot” and “Zig-Zagging Toward the Light,” the lead-off tracks from Oberst’s new album, “Upside Down Mountain.” Things really got interesting a few songs later with the Mystic Valley tune “Moab” and the Bright Eyes staple “Old Soul Song (For the New World),” both of which underwent the aforementioned transition from light to heavy and varied beautifully from the originals.
“There’s nothing the road cannot heal,” Oberst repeatedly declared in “Moab,” one of many songs that suited the poetic road-warrior persona of both acts. He introduced “Hit the Switch” as “a song about the restorative healing powers of alcohol,” and Dawes’ arrangement matched the manic, desperate lyrics.
In the night’s most raw-nerved, red-faced song — the new one “Desert Island Questionnaire,” which references a young girl’s murder — Dawes kept Oberst tethered to a simple, repetitive musical pattern as he reached his most complex songwriting feat of the night. Conversely, it was Dawes who cut loose toward the end of the show with the fiery pre-encore finale “I Got the Reason No. 2” and the encore highlight “Another Traveling Song.”
Jovial between songs, both Oberst and Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith preached their love for First Ave, with the former calling it “a special place to me.” Goldsmith said, “No matter where we are on our tour, it always feels like the most important part of the tour.” Sunday’s show certainly felt like one of the more important that either act has played there, a bold step outside their comfort zones despite the cozy confines.
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