Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Electric Ballroom, London
Monday 01 September 2008
Conor Oberst seems happiest when he's on the move. The US indie-folk figurehead, more often known by the stage name of Bright Eyes, implied as much in a recent interview in this paper. Last year's Bright Eyes album, Cassadaga, recorded in five cities, drew heavily on Oberst's travels; this year's eponymous Oberst album, recorded in the Mexico UFO-sighting hotspot of Tepoztlan, makes frequent stop-offs at the idea of travelling-as-metaphor. In methodology and music, then, both showcase his commitment to mapping scenic routes through Americana's byways.
Certainly, there's a sense of ease and confidence in the way that Oberst's latest album largely abandons the occasionally overwrought poesy of his early work, in favour of a restrained but free-roaming and occasionally character-based – hence less solipsistic, more empathetic – vein of storytelling. At the risk of reading too much into his ditching of the "Bright Eyes" tag, it's as if sidelining it has rid him of some baggage, simultaneously loosening him up and focusing his talents.
His live form suggests as much. The erratic ramblings of some previous Bright Eyes gigs are absent tonight. Oberst has been struggling with a cough ("We are sick," is his one, somewhat melodramatic, declaration) but you wouldn't know it from his performance: talking little, he hits a coolly assured stride from the off, backed by a pro-team five-piece to whom he's happy to surrender vocals on the few occasions that he needs to give his throat a rest.
No Bright Eyes songs are played but it barely matters: the corking three-track opening salvo is as good as Oberst has ever been. "Sausalito", "Get-Well-Cards" and "Moab" breeze by on a three-guitar-and-organ mix, sounding at once loose and muscular, his Mystic Valley Band cleaving to a strain of full-bodied yet easy-rolling US roots-rock that very much recalls The Band of the The Basement Tapes.
As ever with Oberst, the lyrics tell the story of where he's at, albeit obliquely. The breezy country-rock of the opener sees him noting that "Trouble's been your good friend", but by the time of "Moab", he's reaching a more resolute conclusion. "There's nothing that the road cannot heal," he sings, stressing the line by taking the vocal lead on it without any backing.
One thing Oberst can't seem to outrun, mind, is the "new Dylan" tag that haunts him. "Get-Well-Cards" all but channels Dylan in late-1960s country-rock mode, complete with exuberantly lunging vowels in the lyric, "Right there, that's the postman sleeping in the sand."
But Oberst carries the comparison well, in so far as it suggests his increased facility for persuasive shape-shifting. Perhaps his fragile poster-boy-cum-generational-voice persona was starting to feel like a creative straitjacket; anyway, he's shaking it off to show a new hand. His Bright Eyes material confirmed his flair for confessional soul-baring but on "Danny Callahan" he sings with naked, controlled empathy about a boy with bone-marrow disease. On a rumbustious encore gallop through "I Don't Want to Die (in the Hospital)", he takes the viewpoint of an old man squaring up to mortality via barrelling settings that bare comparison with Arcade Fire's "(Antichrist Television Blues)", itself a rollicking kind of Dylan-meets-Springsteen homage.
By the set's close, Oberst practically throws up his hands and gives away the Dylan comparisons. First, after a vocal break in which his band tease the audience with an endearingly ramshackle cover of Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'", Oberst slow-burns through "Corrina, Corrina", a blues standard also covered on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Then he signs off with a cry of, "Come see us somewhere else, we're on tour forever." That's it, then: Oberst's own "never-ending tour" starts here. On this form, long may he roam.
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