From Oberst & Bright Eyes, A Remarkably Sunny Outlook

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Conor Oberst, the creative engine of the indie/emo act Bright Eyes, is best known for lovelorn confessionals and political diatribes. But the 95 minutes of mostly new songs he played at the 9:30 club Monday night don't fall easily into either category. His opener, "I Must Belong Somewhere," seemed to promise a euphoric evening of raucous country rock -- and if the show wasn't quite that, it certainly hinted at a sunnier future for the most prolific depressive in pop music.

Fronting a six-piece lineup, Oberst was all business, performing every song from the "Four Winds" EP (released just yesterday), plus a handful from "Cassadaga," due next month. Bright Eyes' other two full-time members, Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis, supplied soulful textures and accents all night, Walcott playing keyboards and brass while Mogis jumped between guitar, mandolin and pedal steel.

That two-thirds of the material was unfamiliar to the sold-out crowd might explain why it seemed to react more to the presence of celebrity than to the music, despite the bright, ramshackle performances. The band was loose but never sloppy, and a cover of John Prine's "Crazy as a Loon" brought a welcome shot of humor. (The despondent tremolo of Oberst's delivery only made the song funnier.)

Inevitably, Oberst's reluctance to chat between numbers invited shouted requests for older tunes. For an hour he ignored them, finally shooting back, "We actually played all those songs . . . it just happened four or five years ago." (Later he apologized for the remark, saying he was flattered by the requests.)

Oberst's determination to challenge his audience is admirable, but the closing rave-up of fan favorite "Make War" showed how much fun it might have been if he'd been willing to indulge us just a bit more. Perhaps he's afraid he'd end up having fun, too. And what would that do for his image?

-- Chris Klimek

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