Conor Oberst’s ‘Ruminations’ and ‘Salutations’ at Belly Up Aspen
If You Go …
Who: Conor Oberst
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Saturday, Sept. 30, 9 p.m.
How much: $40-$55
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
Twelve years ago, Conor Oberst’s band Bright Eyes released two albums on top of each other that defined the cultural moment — the bombastic and emo-tinged folk record “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning” and the electro-pop disc “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.”
He punctuated those with a “Tonight Show” performance of the protest song “When the President Talks to God” that skewered President George Bush. The dual release saddled Oberst with the “voice of a generation” mantel, landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone and launched countless Bob Dylan comparisons.
Oberst is older and wiser now at 37, but prolific as ever. He’s currently on the road with another one-two punch of companion albums: “Ruminations,” released last October, and “Salutations,” which came out in January. His tour comes to Belly Up Aspen on Saturday.
After ending Bright Eyes and trying out various full-band lineups, Oberst stripped his songwriting down for “Ruminations” — making raw and personal songs with voice, piano, guitar and harmonica. He then went into a California studio to make “Salutations,” reimagining those same songs — and seven new ones — with a full band and guest artists like Jim James, M. Ward and Gillian Welch.
Oberst started his first band and founded a record label at age 13 in Omaha and was quickly hailed as a wunderkind folk genius. With his quavering voice and literary lyics, a torrent of albums, singles, vinyl and cassette oddities followed. Between his final Bright Eyes record in 2011 and his new dual release, he slowed down a bit.
“I realized at a certain point that I was a workaholic and had been for a long time, so the idea of allowing more time to live a regular life and get away from the hustle and bustle of show business and all that has been a good thing for me personally and for my writing,” he told The Aspen Times during a tour stop here in 2014. “There are only so many songs you can write about being in a hotel room.”
In Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 book “Freedom,” a social novel of the early-21st century, the writer uses Oberst to epitomize millennial youth culture’s sincerity and contrasts it with the ironic detachment of Generation X. Franzen puts two of his middle-aged main characters at a Bright Eyes show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., during the “Lifted” tour of 2002-03, among a young crowd of “flat-haired boys and fashionably unskinny girls.” One man is a Bright Eyes believer, and the other — an aging punk rocker— is disgusted by the wimpy vibe and the kids watching a show “to ritually repudiate, for an hour or two on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders.”
The novel immortalizes Oberst in his rock wunderkind moment — recounting the legend of his precocious beginnings and capturing the rapturous following that he inspired in the early ’00s.
But he’s not so easily explained — Oberst’s creative swerves have seen him experimenting with folk and punk, protest music and electronic sounds.
“There’s some element of what I do that, despite all the different bands and all the different production styles and arrangements, that’s fundamental about what I do, that’s a through line in all the different records and projects,” he said.
He’s taken a cue from artists like Neil Young, Lou Reed and Beck, who willfully defy categorization and experiment without fear of leaving listeners behind.
“Once you start to guess what your audience wants to hear and try to create that, you’re putting yourself in a negative cycle where you’re just going to make worse versions of what you’ve already done,” he explained. “So I hope to keep changing and following my nose and what’s interesting to me at whatever given time.”
Set lists on the current tour have seen Oberst showcasing the new “Ruminations” and “Salutations” songs alongside Bright Eyes material going as far back as 2000’s “Fevers and Mirrors” and 2002’s “Lifted.”
“A big part of what I enjoy most about making music, especially in a live setting, is that you’re collaborating and experimenting and finding the strengths of the players you have in whatever given incarnation and being able to reinterpret songs,” Oberst said.
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