A sea of blankets spread across the shady grounds of Battery Park as concertgoers gathered on a beautiful Fourth of July afternoon to see Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band with Jenny Lewis. The free event, part of the summer-long NYC River to River Festival, drew a large diverse crowd and succeeded in creating an appropriately patriotic atmosphere of great music, street vendor ice cream, and general merriment.
With an American flag draped around her shoulders, Jenny Lewis opened the concert with an exuberant,"Let me hear you!" The "Daughter of the Revolution" stomped around her band members with one hand on her hip and the other on the mic during the opener and ended the song by putting aside her "cape" and giggling at the crowd's thunderous response before belting out, "See Fernando!"
Pulling out her acoustic guitar, Lewis treated the crowd to "The Charging Sky" and four other songs from her first solo album, "Rabbit Fur Coat." For "Handle with Care," Conor Oberst and Mystic Valley guitarist Nik Freitas joined Lewis onstage; Oberst picked up a tambourine and sang with Lewis, and at her encouragement - "C'mon, Conor, dear!" - he shimmied around the stage, enthusiastically shaking the tambourine and generating a wave of yells and applause from the audience.
Lewis' band, composed of Jonathan Rice, Barbara Gruska, Danielle Haim, Jonathan Wilson, and Farmer Dave Scher, swayed with arms locked as the frontwoman strummed her guitar and sang "Acid Tongue." Her piercing vocals and sincere inflection brought a chilling stillness over the crowd. And she took advantage of the moment, following with an acoustic version of "Silver Lining" from the Rilo Kiley album, "Under the Blacklight," which she prefaced by saying, "It's been a weird couple of years for me, and I'm sure for a couple of you."
In addition to the five songs from "Acid Tongue," Lewis previewed two new songs, a rocking ballad called "Just like Zeus" and the sugary indie pop tune "Big Wave." She closed her one-hour set by hopping on the keyboard for a crowd-moving performance of "Born Secular."
The afternoon sun's rays bounced off a sparkly orange drum kit labeled "The Mystic Valley Band" as Oberst and his five bandmates followed Lewis with a generous 21-song lineup, featuring selections from "Conor Oberst"and "Outer South." The band kicked things off emphatically with "NYC-Gone, Gone" and the crowd clapped along lively to the song's infectious beat, following the lead of Oberst, who was clad in rolled-up jeans, low-top boots and a large, black cowboy hat. The performance idiosyncrasies so familiar to Oberst fans -- his crackling voice, the intentional misplaced emphasis on certain words, and the vertical guitar strumming -- came to light immediately as the band jumped into "Souled Out!!!"
The hollow quality of Oberst's vocals, along with the hauntingly beautiful guitar work on "Cape Canaveral," permeated the park and lulled the audience back and forth in a gentle wave of music. At the end of the song, Oberst removed his hat and ruffled his hair with a slight grin on his face. "You guys got some sparklers?" he asked. "Let's get festive!"
Performances by Oberst's bandmates weren't excluded from the setlist, either. Often seated at the front of the stage, Oberst strummed and sang along as guitarist Taylor Hollingsworth, bassist Macey Taylor, guitarist Nik Freitas, and drummer Jason Boesel each took turns as primary vocalist.
Oberst dedicated the "One of My Kind," from the documentary of the same name, to his cousin, explaining, "You can move a lot of places, but you can only have one hometown." Before concluding with a highly infused "I Got the Reason," which showcased keyboardist Nate Walcott, Oberst showed his appreciation for the crowd. "It's very nice of you to spend your Fourth of July out here, listening to music." Incessant crowd chanting for an encore brought Oberst and the band back on stage for five more songs.
With everyone's hands in the air, Oberst announced, "This is the most patriotic song we have, so we saved it for last." A passionate performance of "Roosevelt Room" ended the concert, and Oberst blew a two-handed kiss to the crowd.
Jenny Lewis' setlist:
"The Charging Sky"
"You Are What You Love"
"Jack Killed Mom"
"Rise Up With Fists!!"
"Just Like Zeus"
"Handle With Care"
"The Next Messiah"
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band's setlist:
"NYC- Gone, Gone"
"Eagle on a Pole "
"Slowly (Oh So Slowly)"
"Big Black Nothing"
"One of My Kind"
"I Got the Reason"
"Lenders in the Temple"
"Difference Is Time"
"I Don't Want to Die (In a Hospital)"