Conor Oberst References Police, Ryan Adams Tussles with Crowd at KCSN Benefit Concert

Chris Godley
A radio concert with no rotating stage, set changes instead of commercial breaks and a fully attentive audience of music lovers? It’s not a dream. It lives in the Valley.

Unlike most radio station-sponsored multi-artist concerts, Los Angeles’ KCSN’s annual benefit show is not about singles or which artists topped the charts in 2014. The public radio station, which broadcasts from the campus of California State University, Northridge, prides itself on offering “smart rock,” the sort of fare Friday evening’s artists offered in spades.

Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst and David Gray each took a turn on the stage of the pristine Valley Performing Arts Center at CSUN, reminding the faithfully hushed audience why music should always be played with sincerity. (A week earlier, Sarah McLachlan and Laura Marling performed at the same venue, also as a benefit show for KCSN.)

Gray, who made note of the uncharacteristic L.A. weather by saying he “left England in a rainstorm to come to a rainstorm here,” opened the evening with “Birds of the High Arctic,” a track off his latest and tenth album, Mutineers. Accompanied by his band, which included a cellist, Gray laid himself bare to the rapt crowd, one of whom tearfully shouted “David you’re amazing” twice between songs. Over 40 minutes, Gray veered through his back catalogue, offering everything from new, buoyant track “Cake and Eat It” to 2009 hit “Kathleen” and “Nemesis,” which the musician drew out into a ten-plus minute atmospheric jam.

“This is a short set,” Gray admitted. “It’s not even a sandwich – it’s a canapé,” he added before launching into “Babylon,” the 1998 single that put Gray on the map. Or, as he put it, “The song that everybody knows.” He ended the set with “This Years Love,” a bittersweet love song from his 1998 album White Ladder.

Oberst came second on the bill, introduced by KCSN program director Sky Daniels, who pleaded with the crowd: “Our mission is to support musicians and we can’t do it without you guys. We’re going to do our best to support new artists and continue to play established ones.”

Oberst certainly fits in the latter category and used his set to dig back into an extensive discography, both with his solo material, including this year’s Upside Down Mountain, and Bright Eyes. He opened with “Lenders In the Temple,” accompanied only by his keyboardists, and then invited the rest of his five-piece band onstage for a stunningly evocative rendition of “Landlocked Blues,” a favorite from Bright Eyes' 2005 album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.

Making reference to current events, Oberst altered the original lyrics to the song — “And there's kids playing guns in the street/And ones pointing his tree branch at me/So I put my hands up I say ‘enough is enough, If you walk away, I'll walk away’/And he shot me dead” — to invoke the image of a police officer pointing a gun at him to walk away. The shift earned a rousing cheer from the crowd, even though Oberst didn’t mention politics again during his set.

The rest of Oberst’s performance included the optimistic rocker “Hundred of Ways,” which he noted “is about all the possibilities we have every day,” recent album cut “Zigzagging Toward The Light” and “Soul Singer In A Session Band,” a boisterous standout from Bright Eyes’ seventh album Cassadaga. The band, which featured Upside Down Mountain’s producer Jonathan Wilson on guitar, concluded with a rollicking cover of John Prine’s “Pretty Good,” during which Oberst fully let loose, running around stage and leaning on Wilson’s back in guitar solidarity.

In many ways, Oberst has a similar sensibility to Adams and it was a shame that the two artists didn’t take the opportunity to perform together onstage. Nevertheless, Oberst, who consistently gives his all during shows, properly primed the crowd for Adams.

There was a wrinkle, however — Adams’ truncated set time. “We’ve got an hour. Let’s make it count,” said the singer after running onstage with his band. Adams packed as many songs as possible into those 60 minutes, positioned in front of a stage bookended by two massive Fender stacks and featuring a massive tiger statue and vintage arcade games – Frenzy and Asteroids — that lit up behind Adams. Up above: an image of one of Adams’ actual cats.

The band ran through the music quickly, pausing rarely between songs that included “Stay With Me,” “Dirty Rain,” “Magnolia Mountain” and “Lucky You,” which Adams performed solo from a light-wrapped microphone on the side of the stage. Several audience members shouted song titles at Adams throughout the set, which has been raising his ire throughout this tour run and almost caused him to walk offstage during his Boston stop. “Thank you for that request,” he responded at one point. “We totally have a set list. We’re going to exercise free will and play our set list, but thank you for liking that song.”

Later, someone called for Adams to play “Nobody Girl,” a favorite off 2001’s Gold. Adams replied, “Why don’t you play ‘Nobody Girl’?” and offered “When The Stars Go Blue” instead. The highlight of the performance came in the form of a tribute to Jenny Lewis, whose new album, The Voyager, Adams produced. Without making any reference to Lewis, Adams and his band reimagined her single “She’s Not Me” as a boisterous rock number that served as a reminder of her songwriting skills.

“I enjoy getting super-baked and listening to this radio station,” Adams, who lives in LA, noted toward the end of the evening. “I would do some kind of motorcycle stunt if they asked me to.” He paused. “Except I don’t know how to ride a motorcycle so the stunt would just be me getting on one.” As fans yelled more song titles, Adams simply replied, “Okay, bye” and closed with “Come Pick Me Up.” (Worth noting: the rocker is currently touring in support of his new self-titled album and performs two nights at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre on Dec. 17 and 18.)

A radio concert with no rotating stage, set changes instead of commercial breaks and a fully attentive audience of music lovers? It’s not a dream. It lives in the Valley.

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