Keeping things simple certainly works well for Conor Oberst, as his performance in The Egg’s Swyer Theatre on Wednesday night amply proved.
For roughly 90 minutes, with minimal accompaniment, the Bright Eyes leader played a selection of songs from his best-known project, as well as his solo records and his Monsters of Folk collaboration, before an enthusiastic and nearly full house (although the show was supposedly a sell out, there were a few empty seats). In this setting — where every vocal tic, every breath, every scrape of a guitar string could be heard — Oberst’s verbose poetry and simple chord changes carried more weight than on the singer-songwriter’s full band efforts.
It seemed to take a while for Oberst to warm up to the stage, and to his audience, as he kept his head down and plowed through Bright Eyes staples “Big Picture” and “Arienette” to kick things off, only pausing to change from electric to acoustic guitar for “White Shoes.” Each song received more and more applause, and Oberst stuck to a solo guitar setup for “Ahead of the Curve” and the twisting “I’ve Been Eating (For You).”
“Lenders in the Temple” provided some variety, with additional accompaniment on vibraphone adding some nice textures to the song. Oberst’s accompanist also tackled electric slide and lead guitar and piano on other songs throughout the evening, most effectively on the chugging “Bottom of Everything (We Must Sing),” the most rocking performance Oberst gave all evening.
For the most part, the singer stuck to hushed tones, waxing emotional on “Soon You Will Be Leaving Your Man,” and grooving to the jazzy lilt of “Southern State.” Highlights later in the set included the pulsing poetry of “Laura Laurent,” and “Ladder Song,” one of two songs Oberst performed on piano. He may even be a better pianist than guitarist, adding flourishes to his chords throughout but still keeping the changes and rhythm clean.
After a while, Oberst’s half-singing, half-wailing vocals can be a grind, but he’s gotten more consistent over the years, as this performance showed. He performed just long enough, closing the evening to thunderous applause.
Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten took the stage first, shortly after 8, delivering a strong set of earnest originals with help from vocalist Heather Woods Broderick. The duo’s harmonies made the performance, whether they were holding out long, mournful tones on “Have You Seen” or creating a more intricate tapestry on the (slightly) more upbeat “Tornado.”
Van Etten’s songs did have a tendency to sound similar after a while, rarely changing from a mid-tempo dirge, but the strongest moments (“Save Yourself” and, despite some vocal flubs, “I Fold”) elevated the set and helped prime the crowd for what was to come.