If you drive straight into the desert from Los Angeles, past the wind-farms, past the Indian Casinos, and head North following signs towards “Other Desert Cities”, you will find a time portal back into the Wild Wild West. Pioneertown, California was built by Hollywood men who wanted a real-life 1870’s western scene, and over 50 films were made here in the 40’s and 50’s. Today, Pioneertown is hardly more than a mirage, a place that when your GPS tells you “Destination ahead in a half-mile” you think it’s a glitch, because there CANNOT POSSIBLY be a town out here amongst the tumbleweeds and coyotes.
But a half-mile up, on the right, appears the brightly lit sign for Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. It’s a place where you park your car in a dusty back lot, and when two guys hop out of the pickup next to you, and offer a pull from the whiskey bottle they’ve been drinking all the way from L.A., you’re not really surprised. With low-slung ceilings, pock-marked cement floor, dimly lit pool-room, and dusty patio where home-cooked BBQ is served, Pappy and Harriet’s is an old-school Western Saloon, that since 1982 has been hosting some big-name musical acts and serving Budweiser in Mason Jars (2010 price is $2 per). The stage isn’t much of a stage, rather a corner of the main room, that isn’t elevated, and combined with the low-hanging cement rafters, makes it hard to see much if you’re not in the first 5 or 6 rows. Despite this, for the right act, Southern Californians will trek out to desert, and pack Pappy and Harriet’s full.
Such was the case on Tuesday, when Conor Oberst played to a full house with the Felice Brothers serving as his backing band. The Felice Brothers opened the night, playing a rollicking, if slightly reserved set. Ian Felice, plays the lead guitar, and lends his distinctive folksy voice to most tracks, while his brother James, an affable heavy set guy whales away on the accordion. The fiddle player, Greg Farley bounces around the stage, singing to himself at the top of his lungs the whole time, infusing the whole stage with such a feeling of celebration, that it’s almost impossible to not tap your foot and smile broadly while the Bros are onstage. They played a strong set, including Wonderful Life, Saint Stephens End, and the rocker Run Chicken Run. Certainly an energetic and diverse set, but they didn’t play their heavy hitters, Penn Station, Radio Song, or Frankie’s Gun, perhaps knowing their role not as the headliner, but rather the opener, on the night’s playbill.
Conor came out to a roaring ovation, satisfying a raucous crowd, but only briefly. He opened with 2 solo-acoustic songs, that didn’t seem to engage the rowdy California crowd. The front few rows listened intently, the middle of the room tried to take it in, but was partly more concerned with trying to shush the back of the room, which was more intent on finishing their conversations, than listening to one of Conor’s most angst-ridden songs (I’ve Been Eating For You). But he followed that by bringing James Felice out to play accordion on Spring Cleaning, and by the time all the Felice Brothers had joined him for 10 Women, which he dedicated to all the sad gigolos in the crowd, the crowd was all-in. The set reached its peaks when the full force of the Felice Brothers was thrown behind Conor’s tracks. Four Winds, a song that struggles live without fiddle or violin accompaniment, soared with Farley’s fiddle leading the way, and the classic Bright Eyes tune, Laura Laurent closed with a bang as Conor yelled for “EVERYBODY!!” to help him close off the song, just like he does on the recorded version. Including cuts from his whole catalog, Bright Eyes, Mystic Valley, and otherwise, Conor rapped out a killer version of Easy/Lucky/Free off his Digital Ash album. Pretty ambitious considering he was playing with a folk-bluegrass band, but he pulled it off, complete with synthy base-line.
The first half of the two-song encore was a solo acoustic Lua, a song everyone in the crowd knew by heart, and rather than fight to sing over the crowd, Conor just let the crowd belt out the last verse, and followed with his own little scat. But, he didn’t take long to reclaim the spotlight, and closed off the night with Method Acting, complete with his signature leap onto an amp, which considering the 8 foot ceilings and closed quarters, was an accomplishment in itself.
What made the show so unique, and really once in a lifetime was the venue and crowd. Southern Californians already give off that “I don’t give a shit and do what I want” vibe, but put them in a Wild West era saloon, and it’s basically a scene out of Deadwood. The crowd pushed and shoved, yelled at the band without abandon, and almost broke out into a brawl when 2 guys got into it over who knows what. This abandonment of conventional standards carried over into the music, where Conor took his songs and wrapped the mountain-folk sound of the Felice Brothers around them, creating very unique sound. So unique, in fact, that if you didn’t catch one of four Southern California dates on this mini-tour, you probably won’t ever hear it again. But don’t worry, Conor doesn’t ever rest very long, always finding new bandmates, whole new bands, new tours, always practicing what he preaches: “There is nothing that the road cannot heal….”
More photos HERE
SETLIST (I’ll hyperlink the song names as Youtube of the show/shows pops up)
Murder By Mistletoe
Royal Hawaiian Hotel
Let Me Come Home
Saint Stephens End
Love Me Tenderly
Run Chicken Run
Take This Bread
Conor and The Felice Brothers:
Lenders In The Temple
I’ve Been Eating (For You)
We Are Nowhere and It’s Now
No One Would Riot For Less
Easy/Lucky/Free (plus better San Diego version)
I Know You