Oberst hasn't been entirely away from music. He went on a solo tour in 2012 that stopped at the Kimmel Center, where he previewed "You Are Your Mother's Child," the openhearted Upside Down Mountain song that sends a coming-of-age son off into adulthood.
Oberst has always sung impressively phrased songs about thrashing about for some sense of meaning, occasionally distracted by mystical detours and electronic music experiments. Upside Down Mountain is an attempt to return to more direct, pared-down communication without sacrificing the emotional content of early albums, like the 2000 Bright Eyes CD Fever & Mirrors, that resonate most deeply with fans.
That search for meaning played out Wednesday with optimism on older songs such as "Moab" (in which the singer tells himself, "There's nothing that the road cannot heal") and "Another Travelin' Song," as well as new ones, such as "Zigzagging Toward the Light." In "Hundreds of Ways," he offered advice to troubled souls, coming from a voice of experience: "There are hundreds of ways to get though the days / Now you just find one."
In many ways, Upside Down is his California album. It was produced by Jonathan Wilson, who's built a prolific career of his own inspired by the Laurel Canyon country-rock scene of 1970s Los Angeles. And for this tour, Oberst has hired as his backing band another Wilson client: Dawes, the L.A. quartet of Jackson Browne acolytes who also opened the show.
It was a solid pairing. Oberst and Dawes leader Taylor Goldsmith share an earnest, self-consciously poetic songwriting approach, along with their musical commonalities. Taylor's younger brother Griffin propelled the evening forward with impressive muscle on drums. Keyboard player Tay Strathairn and Taylor Goldsmith on lead guitar did their level best to bring to life songs that in many cases Oberst had recorded with larger and more varied ensembles.
The elder Goldsmith described backing Oberst as "a dream come true" for Dawes, who will return to town to play the Xponential Music Festival at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden on July 26. Indeed, songs in his band's opening set such as "When My Time Comes" and the brand-new "To Be Completely Honest" explored themes of mortality and heartache also heard in the headlining set. The difference was that in Dawes' case, they were workmanlike, while Oberst's songs contained flashes of brilliance and grace.