review by Jim Beckmann
photos by Dan Muller
I can’t imagine it’s easy performing to a packed house when you’re limited strictly to songs no one has heard before, especially when you have as eager a fanbase as Conor Oberst has developed through Bright Eyes and now as a solo artist. But those were “the rules” the 28-year old songwriter held to on Wednesday night when he previewed his forthcoming self-titled solo album (on Merge) to a sold out crowd at Neumo’s. Surprisingly, the call outs for song requests were relatively few, but that’s probably because they were trumped by the familiar shouts of “Conor, I love you!” — or more probably because the new songs are really good, even at first listen.
Those following Oberst’s career of late won’t find his new material too surprising when compared to the organic Americana of Cassadaga or the folky EP I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning that anticipated it. As a solo project, the new album (available for streaming here) does feel more intimate as it relies more heavily on a twangy acoustic, and nothing on it really overshadows his voice. It’s doubtful Conor Oberst will do much to dissuade the ongoing Dylan comparisons, especially with songs like “Get-Well-Cards”, but his lyrical turns that blending naive soul searching with seasoned counsel have remained consistently inventive throughout his career and are abundantly present here — though certainly, even on the observant “Eagle on a Pole,” he as turned his attention a bit more outward than in his introspective teenage years.
For supporting a solo outing in the live setting, Oberst definitely doesn’t take the singular route. On stage, five other musicians join him as the Mystic Valley Band: Nik Freitas and Taylor Hollingsworth on guitar, Nate Walcott on keyboards, Macey Taylor on bass, and Jason Boesel behind the drums. At first, and at various times throughout the performance, this surplus overwhelmed the songs, and the band had some early difficulty aligning their harmonies to Oberst’s unique tuning. However, for the more raging numbers, like “NYC–Gone, Gone”, the full band was able to stretch out, and for the quieter ones, like “Lenders in the Temple”, they knew to step back or even off stage.
Evidently, Oberst didn’t want the spotlight drawn too often on himself. He called out the band members and the opening band (Dri) repeatedly, and even allowed Freitas to perform one of his own songs in the encore. Though he was mainly strumming rhythms, throughout the set Oberst would lean his head into whoever between Freitas or Hollingsworth was currently jamming or stand precariously over the drum kit as Boesel wailed away. Even at the most intimate moment, during “Breezy,” the final song on which Oberst took over the keys and sang plaintively, he shifted focus to someone else completely, in this case to harpist Sabrina Duim, who toured with Bright Eyes and who passed away early last year.
For the crowd, though, it was definitely all about Conor Oberst. I’m not sure if everyone was aware ahead of time that he’d be performing only new songs (and a couple I couldn’t place on the new record), but we were a captive audience nonetheless, packed tightly in that rain forest-hot space until the very end.
If you missed Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band in Seattle (and in Montana and Oregon), look for them as they wind down the West Coast, across the country, and eventually around the world through the beginning of November.