As I hobbled down Fifth Avenue towards Grand Central Terminal, I thought—what a beautiful night. It was a sentiment that garnered strong applause at Rumsey Playfield during the Dawes/Conor Oberst concert the two times it was mentioned from the stage that night.
Earlier that evening, when the sun was still out, lulled behind a desultory cloud for a moment or two, the setting could be called idyllic. Rumsey Playfield has a strange intimacy despite being in Central Park, one of the most visited locations not just in New York, or the United States, but the entire world.
I was not surprised to see the crowd gathered quickly. Arriving a few minutes after the doors opened, having traveled from the nearby Museum of Natural History, the line stretched on for quite a distance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the attendees spent the day in the park. Fortunately, a prepared staff kept the line moving smoothly.
Once inside a couple of stands selling the wares of both bands and the Summerstage Festival (this concert was part of a series), a few food places, and plenty of beer and wine options could be seen in a small area near the entrance, stage left. A large mass was forming in front of the stage, mostly sprawled out on the green mats that covered the grass before the show was to start.
It’s impossible to argue against the beauty of Central Park, but it is the refuge of the animal world in the city. Before long I had a Monarch Butterfly resting on my shoulder, and I was tricked into believing in the idyll when moments later a bird shit on my head. It must have been a small creature, the movement wasn’t so large as to ruin the day, but this is the risk of an outdoor show—and anyway they say it’s good luck.
The luck was perhaps shared with the rest of the crowd as the next three hours were filled with great sets from both Dawes and Conor Oberst (who enlisted the opener as a backing band during this latest solo stint).
Hailing from Los Angeles, Dawes did not betray their West Coast roots: after set opener “From A Window Seat,” they launched into “Time Spent in Los Angeles,” a track American Songwriter said had the “instant timelessness of 70s Southern California Rock.” The band members are tight onstage, and they seemed to melt into sound like many of their SoCal brethren.
I was most impressed throughout by Taylor Goldsmith’s guitar and vocal range. Before hearing about this show, I was regrettably unfamiliar with this band, but I was happy to hear that both matched the quality of the band’s recordings.
As lead singer his repartee with the crowd was minimal, stopping only to mention the beautiful weather, and also how grateful he was to be on tour with Oberst. The crowd, although visibly into the set, didn’t fully come alive until the fifth song, the Shins-esque “When My Time Comes,” which Goldsmith took advantage of by turning the mic to the crowd and letting the chants of the chorus echo into the park.
The real highlight from their approximately 40 minute set was the extended outro on “From the Right Angle” that featured a cacophony of mutual soloing from the band, aided on trumpet by Nate Walcott whose playing was epic and transcendent at the same time.
After an extended break—during which time, many of my fellow concert-goers lit up in solidarity with the New York Times editorial board—Conor Oberst came on stage donning a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and sports jacket, looking quite unlike the be-hoodied youth of “Fevers & Mirrors” released almost 15 years ago. He was followed by the re-arrival of Dawes and new additions of a mandolin and Hawaiian lap steel guitar player, and a brass section with Walcott once again on trumpet.
Oberst opened with three tracks off his most recent release Upside Down Mountain that were played with a vigor unlike the neutered recordings. I suspect that had these songs—”Time Forgot“, “Zigzagging Toward the Light,“ and “Hundreds of Ways“—sounded so full and alive on the record, it would have garnered more favorable reviews.
By the fourth song the sun had descended below the skyline in view from Central Park when Oberst did something wholly unexpected: he launched into a couple of Bright Eyes songs. As a longtime fan of his, the last time I saw him play solo with the Mystic Valley Band, he staunchly refused to play any songs from the band that made him famous.
Perhaps it was the beautiful night, which he too made mention of. Or perhaps it was the fact that the band worked so well together. Or perhaps it was just being in New York City that inspired him; whatever it was, Oberst seemed in good spirits throughout his set. He even got into the habit of dedicating songs to friends that were arrested at the Republican Nation Convention in 2004 (“Old Soul Song”), Jenny Lewis, who was in attendance, (“Hit The Switch”), Denny Brewer, I think, who was the man speaking on The People’s Key (“Firewall”), and his father (“I Got the Reason #2”).
Unlike Dawes, Oberst betrayed his Midwestern roots. His 90 minute-plus set contained five songs off I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning to Upside Down Mountain’s eight. This makes sense, of course, as I’m Wide Awake is well known as his New York City album. It was certainly no mistake either, each of the five songs had more applause and audience participation than any of his solo work, only equaled by two tracks off Lifted, “Bowl of Oranges” and “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.”
Each stage of Oberst’s career is intentionally different than previous iterations (we are talking about the guy that released an electronic and acoustic album on the same day), but Dawes and the others had no problems keeping true to their spirit. The organ from “If The Brakeman Turns My Way” was spot on, and the strings and brass nicely accompanied their respective songs. Once again, Goldsmith deserves a special mention for his guitar playing that at times was reminiscent of Mark Knopfler’s during the 80s.
The encore consisted of two of the five tracks from I’m Wide Awake played that night, and both were smart choices. First was “Lua”, played with minimal backing and ended with another trumpet on solo by Walcott, a performance that I will certainly not forget, it was moving and sweet; a beautiful coda on an already beautiful song. And lastly there was “Another Travelin’ Song,” a song that speaks for itself.
The bird shit worked, maybe, if you believe in that kind of thing. I could have wished that Dawes played their cover of former member Blake Mills’ “Hey Lover,” or that Jenny Lewis came out to play a song (“The Big Picture,” perhaps?), or that both sets were a tad longer (Central Park, I assume must have a 10 p.m. time limit for concerts). But why ask for more? After four hours of standing, and a day spent in the beautiful park, I only began to notice my bum knee was starting to hurt when I exited Central Park onto Fifth Avenue to make my way back to the train.
Article by: Christopher Gilson
Photos by: Shayne Hanley