It was only the last performance before a month long break. But the three hour mutual lovefest between Conor Oberst and Dawes last night at Buster’s had all the celebratory finality of a true farewell. There was even a surprise guest, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, on hand to bolster the festivities.
The show was collaborative in the most direct sense of the term. The Southern California-based Dawes opened with an hour-long, pop-friendly set of its own. Oberst followed, with Dawes returning as his backup band, for two hours of more restlessly poetic tunes from throughout his career, including music forged during tenure with Bright Eyes and the Mystic Valley Band. James showed up to jam at the end of each set with a hooded, cross-armed co-hort. A sidekick? A bodyguard? A simple eccentricity? No one knew for sure.
Dawes’ fine performance dismissed its often-misleading categorization as a pack of modern Laurel Canyon folk-rockers. But the West Coast references were still abundant, just more electric.
The set-opening From a Window Seat revealed a jazzy soundscape (the joint product of Taylor Goldsmith’s bell-like guitar tone and Tay Straithairn’s keyboard orchestration) reminiscent of late ‘70s Little Feat while songs that promoted Dawes’ full ensemble sound (Time Spent in Los Angeles, A Little Bit of Everything) recalled Running on Empty-era Jackson Browne. The new and unrecorded I Can’t Think About It Now was drenched in vintage Tom Petty inspiration.
Amazingly, for all the stylistic familiarity, nothing sounded homogenized or blatantly imitative. In fact, the set’s two highlights – the Goldsmith-led jam that sprouted out of Fire Away and the audience sing-a-long that fortified When My Time Comes – revealed how distinctive such source material could sound when combined.
For all the electric firepower Dawes ignited under Oberst, the Omaha-born songsmith remained very much a folk artist at heart. While the dark intensity and introspection of his lyrics didn’t always translate from the stage (the result of a muddy sound mix more than anything) there were still exemplary moments that showcased the unison strengths of both acts.
On Artifact #1, one of seven songs performed from Oberst’s new Upside Down Mountain album, a slow dirge intro bled into a buoyant Dawes-led jam. Later, during Method Acting, a jagged highlight among tunes representing Oberst’s Bright Eyes days, a collage of narrative fragments (“a shocking bit of footage”) was underscored by Straithairn’s calliope-like keyboard colors.
James joined for encores of At the Bottom of Everything (a duet with James on bass) and Roosevelt Room (with Dawes back on board) that proved to be good, messy fun. But the two song sendoff was seemingly designed as much for the musicians briefly parting ways on the road as for the audience filing out of the club.