By Kevin Rutherford
It started with Bright Eyes, which featured multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. Or how about the Mystic Valley Band, again including Walcott but with Jason Boesel, Taylor Hollingsworth and more? Then there’s Monsters of Folk, a supergroup with M. Ward, Mogis and Jim James that Oberst didn’t front, per se, but still had some help from high-profile friends.
But no one backs up Conor Oberst quite like Dawes — that much is certain following a cool Tuesday evening at Summerstage in Central Park, New York.
The Los Angeles four-piece joined Oberst on his current tour behind Upside Down Mountain, the Omaha native’s new solo album released this spring. After playing a dependable set of their own, the quartet joined up with Oberst. Also on stage was Wolcott, who again played trumpet as part of a three-piece horn section, and Larkin Poe, a sister duo (and apparent descendants of Edgar Allan Poe), who contributed mandolin, slide and backing vocals.
And sure, Oberst is the main draw and the top dog; rightfully so, considering it’s his tour, album and songs. But special mention has to be made for Dawes, who added their own flair to songs from Upside Down Mountain and Oberst’s past material, solo or otherwise.
There was “Lua,” for instance, the story of two depressed addicts detailed by Oberst’s warbling voice and acoustic guitar on 2004’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. The song got an upgrade in the vein of Oberst and Gillian Welch’s gorgeous duet of the song on 2009’s Dark Was the Night compilation, with some mandolin notes and Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith’s sparsely played electric guitar. Other tunes also benefited from Goldsmith’s breezy, ’70s California-styled guitar that would make Jackson Browne proud, especially on classic tracks like “Bowl of Oranges” and “We Are Nowhere And It’s Now.” Dawes has their own allure, but they’ve repeatedly shown they can reel it in and assume the part of the featured players — in 2011, they did the very same for Robbie Robertson.
Though they filled out the set tremendously, it was still Oberst’s show. He played master showman throughout, ducking onto the stage in a long black coat and large hat that seemed a little too big for him but made him similarly enigmatic. Later, he presided over the brooding “Firewall” from The People’s Key, adding enthusiastic hand motions to tell the track’s story.
A particular highlight was one of his older songs. “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” featured a rare Oberst keyboard performance, and it received easily the most raucous singalong from the assembled crowd.
But interestingly, Oberst and his backing band of nine excelled most when they were playing the newest material from Upside Down Mountain. That’s no slight on Oberst’s unarguably important discography, but it country-tinged folk is where his head’s at right now. It allowed Larkin Poe’s mandolin and slide to shine, and it was certainly within Dawes’ wheelhouse. Even Oberst himself got into the spirit on songs like “Zigzagging Toward the Light” and “A Hundred Ways,” leaping away from the microphone on musical interludes to twirl in place, somehow avoiding his bandmates in the process and seeming one reckless misstep away from toppling over.
Perhaps that’s an accurate description of the evening as a whole: with his new material’s fuller sound, perhaps Oberst might have toppled under the pressure of trying to relate the music to his fans. But with the help of Dawes and more, he was right side up — not upside down.