There was a time when Conor Oberst would have been a quintessential ACL Festival headliner.
Just 15 years ago, he was an alt-country wunderkind playing under the name Bright Eyes. Around his voice’s careening wispiness, he affected a world-weariness that, set against his enviable youth and unmistakeable talent, made him a star. When he, singer-songwriter M. Ward and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James formed a band and half-jokingly called it Monsters of Folk, they were all big enough to get away with it.
On Saturday night, Oberst got a star’s time slot at the ACL Festival, going on just before headliners Kendrick Lamar and Kygo. He played a strong and resourceful set — one that held the audience at least as close as Oberst could have hoped for when he was younger. His songs’ undulating waves of pitch and tempo felt more substantial and less melodramatic than Bright Eyes’ did, and his voice has modulated to a place that’s more accessible to both his songs and his audience.
Still, it was easy to feel like he was in the right place at the wrong time.
At least, Oberst seemed to feel that way. He repeatedly noted the (honestly unacceptable) sound bleeding onto his stage from the band Two Door Cinema Club, which was playing across the lawn (a “Verizon commercial,” as he put it a few times). He sarcastically explained how a piano is different from a laptop and a record is different from an iPod. And his new song, called “A Little Uncanny,” name-checked Jane Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Christopher Hitchens, Oliver Sachs, Sylvia Plath, and Robin Williams.
The crowd also was eerily thin. Granted, Oberst was up against the dance band across the way, Top 40 flavors of the month The Chainsmokers, and the incipient headliner crowds that far-sighted festival goers were staying ahead of. Still, it’s quite possible that he played to the smallest audience on his stage since lunchtime.
But Oberst is a veteran performer now, so he plowed through it. The sound guy turned things up to 11, the band changed the setlist to excise the softer songs that would’ve been drowned out, and Oberst wailed on the guitar, piano and mike as though his crowd were the only one in the park.
Wrapping up, he thanked ACL Fest’s organizers and complimented a festival he’s come to know well.
“I’m pumped for Kendrick,” Oberst told his audience. “He’s definitely not a commercial.”
It was a good time — maybe even the right one.