In these challenge-averse times, the idea that an artist might want to develop and explore different ways of songwriting in different styles across multiple projects might be frankly frightening. Luckily none of this matters to the crowd at the Corner Hotel for Conor Oberst’s sold out show, in fact it is probably why they are here. The night opens with New York’s The Felice Brothers, strains of accordion and guitar slowly breaking like a sunrise. With so much good local music, Melbourne audiences can be a little stand offish, waiting for performers to earn their praise. By the third song of The Felice Brothers set they have been embraced and the tone is set for the night – we have an audience actually interested in songs and not to cool to share in the passion and vulnerability of the live performance. The brothers swing between folk-rock with touches of atmosphere to raucous country drinking songs. The crowd seem genuinely disappointed when the set finishes, but fortunately the Felice Brothers return to the stage as the touring band for Oberst.
Oberst eases into his set with ‘Napoleon’s Hat’. What follows is a show of over two hours which draws from Conor’s extensive back catalogue and variety of band lineups. Newer songs from the current album Upside Down Mountain such as ‘Time Forgot’, ‘Zigzagging Towards the Light’ and the poignant ‘Artifact #1’ are showcased, while long term fans were rewarded with passionate renditions of ‘Easy, Lucky, Free’, ‘Four Winds’ and ‘Soul Singer in a Session Band’. In between songs someone in the crowd requests ‘Appetite for destruction’ (Guns and Roses) which draws laughter and launches Oberst into a tale of how, in an earlier band, they would play that album in the tour bus to rev themselves up on long drives between cities on tour. In the middle of the set we are treated to a cover of the Tom Petty song ‘Even Walls Fall Down’ in which surprise guest John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats jumps up on stage. There is a palpable sense of joy and celebration as this modest super group slam through the track. Oberst seems slightly surprised and buoyed by the appreciative audience, and says that despite hating the excruciating plane flight to Australia he always comes back because he has so much fun. Other highlights of the evening are the touching and brilliant ‘Lenders in the Temple’ and ‘Cape Canaveral’, while the audience singing along to the heartbreaking ‘Poison Oak’ brings an amazing moment of unity and is a testament to Oberst’s songwriting. As the curtains close on a set over two hours you can’t help but feel that the audience would have stayed for another two. This show was a refreshing reminder that passion and good songwriting are still appreciated.