Let’s try this analogy: Conor Oberst is to indie-rock fans in their late 20s, early 30s, as Justin Bieber is to tween pop enthusiasts. Or maybe Oberst is more like Justin Timberlake because he’s done both the group and the solo thing. Whatever the case, there were a lot of fanboys at the Desaparecidos show last night at Webster Hall. These guys knew all the words, punched out every rhythm in the air, and though they didn’t squeal, they did yell “Fuck yeah!” a lot. Their presence spread across nearly two-thirds of the ground floor, though the actual pit was contained toward the front. That’s where my favorite crowd member of the night hung out: a mohawked, bearded beast of a man in a patch-covered jeans jacket who slammed into people but also graciously scooped them up by the armpits each time they fell.
The aggressive-but-tender interactions mimicked Oberst’s music: Since he was a teenager, the singer-songwriter has been articulating his frustrations—with love, with politics, with the music industry—in a voice that’s as pissed off and assertive as it is honest and fragile. Oberst was at his most aggressive with Desaparecidos, his five-man rock band that released one album in 2002, titled Read Music/Speak Spanish, toured briefly and then disbanded. The Nebraskan group ended its decade-long hiatus last summer with a few shows and two new tracks, “MariKKKopa” and “Backsell.” Then in February came even more new music and the launch of an East Coast tour that ended last night in New York City with the band’s second consecutive show at Webster Hall.
All of the original members of Desaparecidos—Oberst, bassist Landon Hedges, drummer Matt Baum, guitarist Denver Dalley and keyboardist Ian McElroy—returned for the band’s big reunion. It’s been 10 years, and the most notable marker of this time passage was a mild increase in the group’s facial hair. Dalley is still a lean guy, but he did appear less likely to snap in half than he once did, which might explain why the towering guitarist dwarfed his instrument. “It looks like I’m playing Guitar Hero,” he joked. Oberst’s voice was a bit more haggard than it was when he was in his early 20s, but he still sounded less like a grownup and more like a teenager who had a late night, his voice constantly on the verge of cracking. That roughness served the songs well, giving live renditions of the old tracks like “The Happiest Place On Earth” and “Mall Of America” that craggy edge they had when first recorded.
Oberst hasn’t tempered his opinions since those early days either, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s listened to his music over the years. His comments to the audience ranged from saying he would one day shit on the grave of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to urging computer-savvy kids in the crowd to “rob the U.S. government” before launching into this year’s “Anonymous,” an ode to the hacker group of the same name. He also took a moment to talk about U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, the guy who released classified documents on the Iraq war, allegedly to “spark domestic debate.” “He made the ultimate sacrifice,” Oberst said, gesturing to an image of Manning that he had propped on one of the amps. There was some “damn the man” talk, but nothing Oberst said that night made him sound like your conspiracy theorist uncle—just a better-informed version of your anti-establishment kid brother.
After the end of regulation set time, Desaparecidos came out for an encore with tour buddies Joyce Manor and ran through a scream-along version of that band’s “Constant Headache.” This felt like a natural place to end the show, but Oberst and the band kept going, playing a cover of the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” and finishing it off with “Hole In One,” the last track of the Read Music/Speak Spanish LP. Dalley headed into the crowd with his guitar, propping his feet on the stage and reclining his back into the fans. Told you this guy was tall. Much to the delight of the fanboys, Oberst then put down his guitar and took a running leap into the audience. Even hands that were a good 15 feet from Oberst shot into the air in hopes of making contact. One guy even attempted, unsuccessfully, to surf over to Oberst and was dropped before he made it. But Oberst was held on high, a proper throne for this king. I’ve never seen a better-supported crowd surfer.
All photos by Emily Korn