Conor Oberst’s show at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night might just be the first post-Trump rock concert.
The 36-year-old singer, best known as the leader of Bright Eyes and also as a prolific solo artist, mentioned the president-elect overtly only once or twice. But the sadness that Trump’s election unleashed on Oberst was not far from the surface at any time.
Oberst’s show was neatly divided into two parts — yet the halves were basically the same.
The first set featured all 10 tracks from Oberst's extraordinary new solo album, "Ruminations." From the wrenching opener, "Tachycardia," which hints at the false rape accusation against Oberst that nearly destroyed his life, until the closing song, "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out," whose title not only refers to the patron saint of depression but the name of an actual Lower East Side bar frequented by Oberst, the album is a classic.
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The themes of “Ruminations” — failure, weakness, guilt, artistic shoddiness — fit squarely in Oberst’s oeuvre, but none of the singer’s joy, love and brightness is represented on the disc, which makes “Ruminations” Oberst’s “Nebraska,” the classic album that remains a Springsteen outlier.
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At least on Wednesday night, Oberst didn’t seem content to allow “Ruminations” to crawl in on little cat feet, but punctuated its most somber moments with angry harmonica blasts or spat-out lyrics. In all his work, Oberst’s frailty is a “delicate arch carved by the wind” (as he sings in the outstanding “Gossamer Thin”), but at Carnegie Hall, his weakness really bothered him.
He even dedicated the saddest song on the album, “Next of Kin,” to his wife. Yes, it was that kind of show.
Which means that it was transcendent.
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Oberst is the rare pop singer who writes about pain, but doesn’t hide it on stage in some vain exercise in pleasing casual fans. In the second half of the show, he picked up where he left off, slowing down most of his better-known songs, including “Cape Canaveral,” “White Shoes,” “Lenders in the Temple” and “Lua.”
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He also added in a crowd-pleasing (but not Oberst-pleasing) speech about Donald Trump’s victory, describing how he went through all the stages of grief — “puking, s---ting, crying” — on Election Night, only to admit that he was crying “because I’m a p---y, as you can tell from my songs.”
That was a joke, of course, but one Oberst appears resigned to believe.
Even his final song of the night, “At the Bottom of Everything,” maintained the somberness of the evening. On the 2005 album, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” the song offers social commentary about the myriad ways in which human beings have shackled themselves (“We must memorize nine numbers and deny we have a soul...”), but the up-tempo peppiness suggests that there’s hope (indeed, as the lyrics say, “And in the caverns of tomorrow/With just our flashlights and our love/We must plunge, we must plunge, we must plunge”).
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But onstage at Carnegie Hall, Oberst buried any optimism in Trump-era fears, slowing down the song to emphasize its pessimism. His mother may, indeed, be watering plants, but his father is still readying his gun.
Conor Oberst continues his tour on Saturday and Sunday in Chicago. For info, visit www.conoroberst.com.Send a Letter to the Editor