Better Oblivion Community Center | photo by Rachel Del Sordo | racheldelsordophotography.com
Navigating the lift and drag of Better Oblivion Community Center’s Union Transfer gig
Better Oblivion Community Center is the name of Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst’s surprise collaboration, who released their debut album back in January after a performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Since then, they’ve begun a tour across North America, branding the project with semi-cultish merch and a creepy answering machine message.
On their stop in Philadelphia at Union Transfer, they performed songs from their self-titled album, as well as selections from Bridgers’ solo work and Oberst’s time with Bright Eyes. Their energy was vibrant the entire night, with a clear artistic chemistry between Oberst and Bridgers that demonstrates the obvious impetus behind the project. But it felt like that original spark was the only thing driving this machine forward. Many of their performances felt lackluster and half-hearted, others more self-satisfying, with a few gems hidden within the largely tiring night.
In a night celebrating the collaboration of indie-rock’s best and brightest, who would have believed that another collaboration would steal the spotlight? Within Christian Lee Hutson’s opening set of acoustic guitar and a clear passion for storytelling, he brought out opener Lala Lala for a performance as Slugs, a band formed solely for this stretch of the tour. “If anybody from Pitchfork is here, or uh, any other publication, we’re looking for press for our new band: Slugs,” said Hutson. Well here it is: Slugs rocks. Hutson’s and Lala Lala frontwoman Lillie West’s voices intermingled perfectly, with a bit of folksy charm from Hutson, and a bit of a harder edge from Lala Lala.
During Lala Lala’s set, Hutson was brought out once again to perform as Slugs for a song. Otherwise, Lala Lala was another amazing find from the performance, bringing songs that would be pop-punk if they weren’t so insular, beachy if they weren’t so secluded. Using Best Coast-esque riffs on top of West’s harsh whisper of a singing voice, Lala Lala’s set was a highlight of the night.
After considerable preparation and tuning of guitars, Better Oblivion Community Center entered to a voice reminding the audience of the Community Center’s many services available, from “dry ice meditation” to “chosen family therapy.” They began with an uplifting rendition of “My City,” one of their more lighthearted tracks.
They followed with several of the most notable cuts off their album, including “Sleepwalkin’,” ironically one of their most energetic songs of the night, which shifted tempo from a chill verses to frenetic choruses at full volume. “Dylan Thomas” was another hit, with a considerably altered tone on Oberst’s guitar that felt more dynamic and jumpy, injecting the performance with life. Throughout the beginning of the set, the audience reacted to each song like it had been a weathered classic, singing along and crying out at each conclusion.
After the initial excitement waned, however, the night felt like it began to drag. The tempo of the songs slowed, and the band began to lose the initial verve that brought a lot of energy to the beginning of the night. Songs like “Chesapeake” and “Service Road” began to blend together, and even the synth-based “Exception to the Rule,” for which the duo reclined on lawn chairs for, felt nauseating with its pulsing beat. Aside from the lawn chairs, the show included other affectations like beach balls thrown into the crowd and an oversized BOCC ID to take photos with. The beach balls were quickly lost in the crowd and some deflated, feeling like a metaphor for the night.
Their covers, however, were the remaining saving grace near the end, with Oberst taking lead vocals on Bridgers’ “Funeral,” making a bold but impressive choice to take it up-tempo and more punk than the original folk ballad. Their cover of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” was also incredibly lively, and had a passion that had lacked in most of the performance of their own songs.
By the time the band ended their initial set, the applause for an encore felt half-hearted (it was a Tuesday night, after all). The band returned for three songs, including a cover of Bridgers’ “Scott Street,” which once again, Oberst took lead vocals on. During the outro, however, Oberst handed off the mic to an audience member, who began to harmonize with Bridgers and sing along beautifully; another unexpectedly memorable moment from the night.
The band closed out after that with Bright Eyes’ “Easy/Lucky/Free” and “Dominos,” the closer off the BOCC album, with no performance of “Shallow” as they had done at their stop in Brooklyn. They exited as voices began to speak once again through the speaker system, apparent patrons of the Better Oblivion Community Center elaborating on what they hoped to get out of their experience with the program. It’s unclear if they ever got what they asked for.
Better Oblivion Community Center Setlist:
Big Black Heart
Bad Blood (Bright Eyes cover)
Exception to the Rule
Can’t Hardly Wait (The Replacements cover)
Lime Tree (Bright Eyes cover)
Funeral (Phoebe Bridgers cover)
Didn’t Know What I Was In For
Scott Street (Phoebe Bridgers cover)
Easy/Lucky/Free (Bright Eyes cover)