Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, with All Smiles and The Like Thursday, October 16, 2008 Ogden Theatre, Denver Better than: Any mystic valley I've ever wandered through.
First things first: Conor Oberst would like his ring back.
The poet laureate of Omaha, Oberst (formerly Bright Eyes) was in Denver on Wednesday, reuniting with his Mystic Valley Band after a month's layoff from touring. The band made stops at Hamburger Mary's and Rock Bottom before retiring to Hotel Monaco. Somewhere along the line, Oberst apparently misplaced his prized ring, a silver-and-turquoise piece “with a picture of a boat on it.” And, as he announced mid-set last night, he would really like it back. He even, somewhat hilariously, gave out the number for his producer, which I won't repeat here. But do let us know if you find it. Maybe we can split the prize, which I suspect is a bottle of whiskey or an autographed dime bag of Nebraska's finest.
Now, the show:
I arrived near the end of Portland-based All Smiles's set, and wasn't terribly disappointed to be late: A talented trio, no doubt, but they played a sort of even-tempered, even-tempo brand of rock that needs something special – distinct vocals, head-spinning prose – to succeed, and I didn't really hear either. Then again – and this is key – what the hell do I know?
As the Ogden slowly filled, All Smiles gave way to the Like, with whom I was admittedly unfamiliar (for more on my ignorance, see previous sentence). An all-female trio, the Like is 275 pounds of melodic fury – three wee lasses who, at least from my perch on the second tier, looked barely old enough to drive their minivan from LA for the gig. Turns out they're pretty much veterans, having started the band as teenagers years ago. Lead lass Elizabeth "Z" Berg, who sang on Oberst's Cassadaga, is 22, she told me after her set. She actually seemed a couple of years wiser than that.
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The Like has toured with Tori Amos, and that's a good place to start for their sound. Berg's sometimes-gravelly, always pitch-perfect voice filled the Ogden, and the lyrics -- “hazy shade of hate,” “don't hate you but I don't love you at all” -- evoked images of the girls stumbling across the Reality Bites soundtrack as teenagers. And it works: The Ogden, almost full by the end of their set, was doing a lot of these-girls-can-play! head-nodding by the end, and Z was a popular figure at the merch table even after Oberst's set started.
It was around 9:45 by then, when Oberst's scraggly band of plaid took the stage. They opened with “Sausalito,” off of Oberst's self-titled disc -- a twangy frolic that embodies what I've always liked about him. I'm a sucker for the guy's prose, his wordplay and the authenticity of his storytelling. He sings about Sausalito with an authority that makes you believe he's been there, maybe even recently, drunk off of red wine and threatening to take a swim in the bay.
They moved from there into “Get-Well Cards,” which sent another cascade of Americana images erupting from Oberst's lyrics. Soon enough was “Cape Canaveral,” the first of a few sedated tunes, which was fine by me. I came to know Oberst through “Lua,” a pitch-black kick-in-the-junk of a song off of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. There was a good six months when I used that song to intentionally ruin a perfectly good day, as some of us are wont to do.
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He didn't play it last night, and probably for good reason. Can't have people whacking themselves on the way home from your show.
Most of the rest of the songs were of the shit-kicking variety, including, during a five-song encore, a spot-on cover of Paul Simon's “Kodachrome.” Oberst's crew honored the song bar for bar, right down to its giddy swipe of the piano keys. It was one of several things that, seeing him live for the first time, made Oberst easy to like: He wore an Obama sticker but carried with him no soap box. He let both his drummer and bassist carry entire songs, and he boisterously promoted other band members' solo albums. He lovingly kissed the cheeks and rubbed the heads of various bandmates. And, most importantly, he sang his ass off, surely threatening his voice with his mid-song screaming.
Then, with an endearing wave, he left -- off to New Mexico, not to be seen around here for a while.
Unless, of course, you come up with that ring. I get the feeling he'd turn the bus around for that. -- Joe Tone