One frequent question during my 35 years as pop critic at the Los Angeles Times was, "What's your favorite concert ever?"
And I always had a hard time answering it because I saw an average of 100 concerts a year during that time, and there were so many magical moments each year.
The shows that usually came to mind landmark performances by such varied figures as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, U2 and the White Stripes.
Yet I was never able to boil it down to a single favorite show.
It’s much easier answering this question: “What concert are you most looking forward to seeing this year?"
My choice, by far, is the Oct. 5 pairing at the Greek Theater of two of my favorite singer-songwriters ever: John Prine and Conor Oberst.
John’s self-titled debut album was a classic the moment it hit the shelves in the early 1970s—songs filled with convincing portraits of people caught in various stages of joy, acceptance and despair. I was so hooked that I went around for months quoting the lyrics—lines like these from “Sam Stone,” a song about a child’s horror at seeing his father return home from Vietnam combat with a heroin habit:
There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes.
Jesus Christ died for nothin, I suppose.
In a sweeping change of pace, John, 24, wrote with equal empathy about the way old people are often shunned aside in a youth-obsessed culture. In “Hello in There,” he wrote:
You know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder every day.
But old people just grow lonesome,
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello."
More than 30 years later, Conor’s “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” album—which he released under the group name Bright Eyes--hit with similar force. Conor, who had been making records in his native Omaha since his teens, was also 24 and his best songs conveyed an innocence and intelligence that enabled him to see the world with fresh and fearless eyes. He weaved his findings into intimate songs whose melodies are as timeless as a hymnal and whose images are hauntingly poetic.
In “Lua,” one of my favorites Conor spoke about a night in New York with a girl who was moving close to the edge—a gripping reflection on the sometimes recklessness of youth:
I got a flask inside my pocket
We can share it on the train
And if you promise to stay conscious
I will try and do the same.
We might die from medication
But we sure kill all the pain.
What was normal in the evening
By the morning seems insane.
Conor’s latest album, “Upside Down Mountain,” released this spring under his own name, is his finest collection since “I’m Wide Awake,” which makes his Greek appearance doubly appealing.
Being a fan of both artists, I was delighted during Conor’s show in 2007 the El Rey Theatre when he sang a song that was blessed with so many of the same warm, human touches that made his work so compelling that most people in the theater figured it was one of his new songs. It was in fact “Crazy as a Loon,” a Prine song, about a man who keeps blaming the rest of the world for his problems. It was thrilling to have these two generations of songwriters joined however briefly.
By sharing the bill for the first time ever in Los Angeles, the link between Prine and Oberst will be more notable at the Greek, and the results should be more thrilling.
Tickets on sale now at Greek Theatre's website.