This was my first time at the wonderful Riverfront Theater, a large circus tent (yes, you read that right, a circus tent) located just off the River and Chicago Ave. While I can’t imagine that it would have been as much fun in colder weather, I really enjoyed the carnival atmosphere. In fact, the tickets we purchased included a pass to a performance by El Circo Cheapo before the show, an offer we were happy to take advantage of.
Just as an aside before we get into this thing, I would give any of their monthly performances my wholehearted recommendation. There is something special about watching a trapeze artist and then seeing a rock show.
The lineup for last night’s show included Conor Oberst, the man behind Bright Eyes, and Van Dyke Parks, the composer perhaps most well known for his contributions to The Beach Boys’ SMiLE album. While I was excited by the notion of seeing both of these artists for the first time, I was a little curious about how well they would gel together as a complete package. I was sure that they would be great individually, but I doubted that it would translate to a wholly successful evening of entertainment (and then I went to a circus beforehand, so go figure).
Thankfully, I was wrong. Musically it may not have been the most perfect pairing, but that didn’t matter. Ideologically at least, these artists are a match, and I think that each set informed the other a little bit, bringing out new characteristics in the music and lyrics that I might otherwise not have thought of or noticed.
And in terms of genre, I guess that they both essentially deal in folk music, albeit different types. American life and culture inform so much of what they both do that the show almost ended up being a bit of a history lesson. This was made even more apparent when Parks, an expert on American music, launched into an old tune from the 1940s about FDR.
I didn’t know what to expect from Parks, having never even seen a video or heard a recording of him performing live. I am only familiar with his early solo recordings and of course his work with other artists, so I was pleasantly surprised when he sat at the piano and belted out, “Hello, first city! Let’s go somewhere!” And go somewhere we did.
In between each song Parks couldn’t help but make bewildering stage banter that was teetering on the edge of nonsensical. When mentioning that the next song was written for his friend Brian Wilson, he followed with “may he rest in peace… in due course. Never too early, never too late.” I can’t imagine what a conversation would be like between the two of them. Their heads are so far up in the clouds that they might run out of air before they could finish a sentence.
Conor played solo for a good portion of his set, but was also joined by a rotating group of musicians on vibraphone, guitar and piano. The results were often breathtaking, and while the muddy sound system at Riverfront didn’t do this particular combination of instruments many favors, Oberst’s voice managed to cut above. His set didn’t lean too heavily on any one album, and it was exciting to watch him pick and choose from his own catalogue. He was also joined for a few songs by Klara Soderberg of First Aid Kit, whose band plays a show Monday at Metro. She was, as always, astounding. Her take on Lua was especially beautiful. I think that I could watch an entire concert of the two performing together.
So needless to say, despite my uncertainties going into the evening, the show worked exceptionally well. Not only am I grateful to have gotten to see these two, but I’m grateful I got to see them together. It’s always nice when a show can move you to think as well as feel. As for the Riverfront Theater, I will be back, but hopefully in warmer weather.
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