Over the past half-decade, it seemed as if Conor Oberst wanted to perform with as many other musicians as possible. He bounced from the all-star group Monsters of Folk to fronting the Mystic Valley Band to reforming his wildly disparate old bands Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos. Calling him a solitary folk singer seemed as outdated as calling Alice Cooper a band.
At a packed Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Thursday night, though, Oberst stripped way back on the musical friends and bounced all around his discography. The one-time Omaha wunderkind -- now a songwriting veteran at age 32 -- didn't just revisit his past, he reclaimed it in a 90-minute, mostly acoustic set that turned into one of his most satisfying local outings of not just the past half-decade, but all time.
Sporting a long mane that looked like something out of a Soundgarden publicity photo circa 1991, Oberst took the stage all by his lonesome following a brief introduction from 89.3 the Current jockey Mary Lucia. The Current's loose talk of the concert being a Q&A-style radio session apparently fell by the wayside before showtime. Even better, his rabid Twin Cities fans were treated to the first look at what Oberst has planned for a fall solo tour that includes a Carnegie Hall stop.
At times, the show resembled Neil Young's template-setting solo gigs. Oberst bounced around on instruments like Young does, from acoustic to electric guitar and even a grand piano during a few songs. There were sharp echoes of "After the Gold Rush" as he plunked out the dramatic, lonesome-sounding "Ladder Song" on the ivories.
Unlike Young's solo outings, though, Oberst didn't do it all alone. Twin Cities-born multi-instrumentalist Ben Brodin joined him four songs into the set on -- of all things -- vibraphones, which added an elegant warmth to "Classic Cars." Brodin also delivered atmospheric guitar work in such songs as "Cape Canaveral."
Omaha indie starlet Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds -- who delivered her own set to open the show -- also popped up sporadically, adding a golden voice to the early Bright Eyes nugget "Laura Laurent." The set list went back even further, to "Arienette," but at least one song from nearly every one of Oberst's major albums were also covered, from MOF's "Map of the World" to MVB's "Ten Women."
While his own singing voice was especially rich and thick (one benefit of a tour's opening night), Thursday's concert was more a showcase of Oberst's uniquely poetic, provocative and sometimes brilliantly raw songwriting talents. Among the best examples of this were two powerful unreleased tunes, including a sharp-tongued Dylanesque gem he said was about "American royalty." With less instrumentation on top of all the songs, it was a little more clear Oberst belongs in Bob's royal court as a classic American tunesmith.