Better Oblivion Community Center played Columbus Theatre – 3/31

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers brought their new collaborative project to Providence’s Columbus on Sunday night with support from Lala Lala and Christian Lee Hutson. 

Announced via mysterious brochure and hotline earlier this year, Better Oblivion Community Center is 2019’s big surprise collaboration that’s not so surprising when you stop and think about it. Oberst and Bridgers have collaborated before of course – he guests on “Would You Rather,” a highlight from her 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps, and popped in to perform it on tour last year – but the two have plenty more common ground. Both musicians traffic in different generations of melancholic, deeply personal songwriting that nonetheless feels broadly resonant – and thus earns a particular sort of cult following. Of course these two could end up forming a band together.

Their January debut as Better Oblivion is by and large less of a downer than either Bridgers’ excellent debut or Oberst’s best-known work as Bright Eyes, but instead showcases the pair’s chemistry in less obvious ways. There’s an innate sadness to be found in the “Chesapeake” or closer “Dominos,” but the record’s best moments tend to be its most upbeat: back-to-back rockers “Sleepwalkin” and “Dylan Thomas” or the electro-tinged “Exception to the Rule,” where the collaboration brings out something distinct from either songwriter’s solo work.

At the Columbus – the duo’s second New England show following an appearance in Cambridge Thursday night – they followed through on that promise. A three-piece backed Oberst and Bridgers, and Better Oblivion functioned as a proper rock band – complete with a spot-on Replacements cover that eventually brought the crowd out of its seats and streaming down the theater aisles. Bridgers played the more restrained foil to Oberst’s bombast, as he channeled some of that dormant Desaparecidos energy into hair-whipping guitar thrashing and a trip into the stage right box seats during the encore, the two carrying their complementary tendencies from the record to the stage with ease.

The setlist delivered all 10 of Better Oblivion’s studio tracks – plus the tour 7″ tune “Little Trouble” – in addition to the aforementioned ‘Mats cover and some fun twists on both Bridgers’ and Oberst’s back catalogs that found the pair switching songs. She brought gravitas to Bright Eyes’ “Lime Tree” and the ultra-deep-cut “Bad Blood,” while he turned the profoundly sad “Funeral” into a surprisingly effective punk rager.

All this in addition a frankly amazing aside in which Oberst recounted the time he found himself at a Hilary Duff concert (where a friend was working) and unfamiliar with the catalog – an oversight Bridgers sounded gleeful to right in the near future.

It seems doubtful that we’ve heard the last from these two as collaborators, and here’s hoping that really is the case.

Opening the show were Chicago’s Lala Lala, whose shapeshifting sound encompassed power-trio indie rock, more minimal synth tunes and a Perfume Genius cover that fused the two, and singer/songwriter Christian Lee Hutson – a sharp lyricist who also flexed the full range of his talents as part of the BOCC backing band.

Photos from all three sets below.