For a lonesome troubadour, Conor Oberst sure has a big entourage. Saturday night at Wolf Trap, the Omaha-bred singer-guitarist fronted a version of Bright Eyes that included six other musicians. He was also bolstered by a whole lot of gear — audio and visual — and occasionally members of the opening acts, Dawes and M. Ward. Even when most of the players left the stage for quieter numbers such as “Ladder Song,” the effect was fairly bombastic.
Once proclaimed a “new Dylan,” Oberst now seemed more inclined to emulate U2. He traded trebly guitar cascades with longtime collaborator Mike Mogis as strobes flashed and the elaborate lighting setup cycled through red, fuchsia and purple. Many of the songs were driven by two drummers, and nearly all of them featured two keyboardists: Bright Eyes regular Nate Walcott (who also played the occasional trumpet solo) and Laura Burhenn (formerly of Georgie James, a D.C. pop-rock band). Oberst sometimes switched to acoustic guitar, and Mogis periodically played pedal steel, but the country and folk timbres were overwhelmed by arena-rock gestures and even (during “Jejune Stars”) a disco beat.
The big noise often swallowed Oberst’s lyrics, but a unifying theme was nonetheless audible: There were enough invocations of death for a Cannibal Corpse show, although a better comparison might be Death Cab for Cutie. Like that band’s Ben Gibbard, Oberst uses mortality as a come-on rather than a threat. To judge by the audience’s screams, many Bright Eyes fans consider such lines as “you will die, you die, you die, you die’’ to be pretty sexy.
The nearly two-hour concert opened with “Firewall” and closed with “One for You, One for Me,” the songs that frame Bright Eyes’ latest release, “The People’s Key.” The band played about half of that album but also reached as far back as the mid-’90s, when the now-31-year-old Oberst was a teenage prodigy. The performance peaked during encores of “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” (a rare Oberst song that’s about empty sex rather than tragic love) and the Bach-rocking “Road to Joy.” For a few exuberant minutes there, it did sound as if Oberst were headed in a happy direction.