Octoberst is Upon Us: The Bay Area's Three Days in a Row of Conor Oberst
It's that time of year again. While many welcome fall with eagerness of Halloween or the cliché pumpkin spice latte, there are those of us who fondly welcome it as "Octoberst". Conor Oberst's guaranteed two Bay Area shows in a row, often accompanied by a third show a little farther from the Bay. This year we eagerly await "Conor Brings Friends" (Rooster Stage) at the 15th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival-- where Oberst dazzles the audience with an indie range from noon to five PM in Golden Gate Park. From up & coming NPR-buzz artists to more established alternative rockers, his selection is a mixture of old favorites and newer musical treats that you'll surely be following up on after the FREE (yes you read that right) festival is over for the year. Last year Sharon Van Etten wowed the audience on what oddly is often San Francisco's hottest day of the year (luckily this year weather predictions are much more temperate). Oberst has collaborated with a myriad of talented artists over the years. It's always incredibly endearing to see the acts that play before him, all join him onstage during his closing set.
This year Oberst welcomes M. Ward, Jonathan Rice (pictured left with Oberst), Laura Marling, the Felice Brothers and Jessica Pratt. The Felice Brothers are a touring companion favorite of Oberst--they played the Fillmore SF with him two years ago, after playing his HSB stage. Additionally Oberst will often play a show a little farther out from SF-- two years ago he graced the Saratoga Winery with the Felice Brothers, this year he's playing a sold out Phoenix Theater Petaluma show (north of SF in Sonoma County) with them on Thursday. Johnathan Rice is known to many as an essential part of his partner Jenny Lewis' band, and as the Johnny of Jenny & Johnny. He's an amazing guitar player, witty lyricist and always puts on a great show. Three nights in a row of Conor Oberst in the Bay Area, with one for free in the gorgeous Golden Gate Park, is pure bliss for his loyal cult-like following. Thankfully he does draw older, calmer fans, but there is often an awkward fan moment to endure for those of us who always stand in the front row. Two years ago a girl wearing the any-music-festival-in-Golden-Gate-Park essentials (think straight out of 1969 summer of love) eagerly squealed "Marry me Conor!" repeatedly over the barricade, to his polite but uncomfortable reaction. With Northern California's most famous music festival Outside Lands becoming more expensive and overrun every year, loyal HSB attendees are so grateful that the legacy of Warren Hellman allows this three day extravaganza of extremely fantastic artists to remain free.
This year Oberst's three-day Bay Area residency is paired with the beloved M. Ward. Ward hails from Southern California, but is known as a Portlander, having called it home for over a decade. Many know him as the "Him" with Zooey Deschanel in She & Him, while others may have tuned in when Oberst & Jim James joined him in their supergroup Monsters of Folk (2009). I first heard of Ward when Oberst introduced him with grandeur at the Great American Music Hall in 2007, "I want to introduce a very special friend, this man is a legend folks! If you don't know him yet, look up his music as soon as you get home-" I remember Oberst touting. His music advice is always on point--I of course then immediately bought all Ward's albums to date, and have considered him a classic ever since. I remember sometime after that show, reading that Ward's music is a go-to for Oberst if he's ever anxious for example on a flight with a lot of turbulence. Ward's voice is beautiful & soothing, as is his amazing guitar work. You can hear his range of influences, from Blues, to the Everly Brothers and the Beach Boys, weaving around each other to form an undeniably comforting and rich blanket; perfect for an outdoor show, Petaluma's intimate Phoenix theater, and the Fillmore SF's Saturday nightcap to a dream weekend. He last joined Oberst at HSB in 2011.
If you cannot make it on Friday, do yourself a favor and snag a ticket for the Fillmore show. Oberst, New York's the Felice Brothers (they are actually brothers), and Ward are music for the soul. Not counting EP's, collaborations and live albums, Oberst's latest album Upside Down Mountain is his twelfth full length studio release; and his third since recording under his name (and not as Bright Eyes). His philosophically and politically charged singer-songwriter style brought about Bob Dylan comparisons during his breakout double album release in 2005, and the critical acclaim has not slowed down since. Emmylou Harris graced his 2005 song "We Are Nowhere and It's Now" (I'm Wide Awake & It's Morning), which they sang together at HSB in 2009. Fans of Emmylou can catch her at this year's festival on the Banjo Stage on Sunday. Both Ward and Oberst are fantastic also for their wide appeal: and while girls will still squeal at Oberst (he's married, ladies & gents), you will impress your parent or offspring by taking them with you to see them both perform someday. Ward & Oberst's lyrical and musical talent have staying power that you will not want to miss.