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Conor Oberst and Dawes sell out Pabst Theater in Milwaukee

Conor Oberst and Dawes in Milwaukee on May 31, 2014
Conor Oberst and Dawes in Milwaukee on May 31, 2014Copyright 2014 John Schulze

Last night, May 31, Conor Oberst and Dawes performed in Milwaukee at The Pabst Theater to an appreciative sold out crowd. The fans standing up front before the stage were one of the more engaged crowds I've seen at a show recently. The cellphone to fan ratio was shockingly low, and the crowd preferred to be in the moment rather than watch the show through their tiny cell phone screens. Of course, with a band as talented as Dawes and a performer as enthusiastic as Connor Oberst onstage, it's really no wonder.

Conor Oberst and Dawes perform in Milwaukee at the Pabst Theater
Conor Oberst and Dawes perform in Milwaukee at the Pabst TheaterCopyright 2014 John Schulze

Dawes has been and continues to be one of the best songwriting units in the music business. While Dawes has an embarrassment of talents musically, lyrically the band, led by Taylor Goldsmith, is on another level when it comes to making songs that connect directly to the heart and mind. Last night the band ran through some old standards in their repertoire, some newer songs from their most recent album, "Stories Don't End," and even took the opportunity to perform a couple of brand new songs.

Highlights from Dawes back catalog included "Fire Away," and "Little Bit Of Everything," songs where Taylor Goldsmith really shines in conveying an emotional connection to his song crafting. Goldsmith has all of the qualities that made Bob Dylan the voice of his generation. Dawes songs aren't simple 4 minute songs that merely pass the time, they tell a story and they create a musical space that's believable, and more importantly, enjoyable and relatable. One of the new songs Dawes performed last night was titled, "Things Happen." If it's any indication of what to expect for a fourth studio album, fans are going to be happy with the results.

Griffin Goldsmith, the drummer and brother to Taylor, not only is stellar behind the drum kit, but he added some great vocals to the live mix. Wylie Gelber on bass held his ground solid last night while performing double duty with the rest of Dawes as Conor Oberst's backing band. Keyboardist Tay Strathairn added his influence to the lush sound last night by playing his myriad of keyboards that surrounded him. The entire band was truly in the moment, nailing all the peaks and valleys and knowing when to be subtle and when to let it all hang out.

Taylor Goldsmith also took a moment to appreciate The Pabst Theater. During a quite moment in the middle of "Most People," he told the crowd, "This is one of the nicest venues we've ever seen. It's an honor to be here." Dawes ended their set with "From The Right Angle," a song he said was about being in a rock n' roll band.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Conor Oberst. One of the great things about music is experiencing a performer for the first time and letting them win you over as an artist. That's exactly what Oberst did last night. Supporting his most recent release that just dropped a couple weeks ago May 19 on Nonesuch Records, "Upside Down Mountain," Oberst gave the sold out crowd, especially those in the first few rows, a show they won't soon forget.

From the anthem, "Moab," to the new song, "Enola Gay," Oberst displayed his lyrical prowess with sincerity. Oberst serenaded Milwaukee with his candid and mature songwriting and while at times it seemed he fought hard to control all the emotions pouring out of him, it was never a distraction to his cause. Dawes was more than just his backing band, they were musicians who were literally instrumental in giving Oberst foundation to leap from.

Near the end of the set Oberst took a minute to say that Dawes was, "The best in the business." Dawes left the Pabst Theater stage and Oberst performed "Lua," a song that would have been right at home in Lou Reed's prime era. Oberst gave Milwaukee a performance full of conviction and dynamics. Coming back out for the encore Oberst told the crowd he'd like to play, "One more love song if you guys don't mind too much." The crowd obliged and Oberst performed a heartfelt "White Shoes."

Dawes came out and played 2 more songs with Oberst. The final song of the night, "Roosevelt Room," is a contender for the stand out song of the set. Oberst told a short story about how his mother always told him never to talk politics or religion at the dinner table. He mentioned how it probably carried over to rock n roll. But Oberst made no apologies and told the crowd it was the last song of the night and they could leave if they wanted to. No one took him up on the offer. Instead the crowd stuck around for one of the most impassioned songs of the night that ended with Oberst jumping into the crowd with his guitar. He was lifted quickly back onto the stage before Oberst and Dawes finished the show on a high note and sent the Milwaukee crowd off into the warm summer night.