Comparing Conor Oberst to Bob Dylan is somewhat old hat. It's easy enough to make a case for grouping the two Midwestern singer-songwriters known for folky instrumentation and unique styles of story-telling, and people have been since Oberst's days as a child prodigy in Omaha. But what really strikes me about the two men is their fearless, oftentimes seemingly anti-commercial approach to their careers.
Dylan, of course, set the course of his career with one show in Rhode Island. Oberst's moves have been a little subtler, certainly, but nearly as bold, as demonstrated last night at the Marquee. Taking the stage in a wide-brimmed black hat (Amish? Hasidic? The crowd yelled out to ask, he was coy about it) the 29-year-old had his new five-piece backing outfit, The Mystic Valley Band, and only two albums worth of material to play, one of them not yet released.
Oberst has more, of course. Much, much more. As the principal member of Bright Eyes, Oberst wrote and recorded an impressive catalog -- including two songs that topped the Billboard Hot 100 after simultaneous release in 2004 -- all of which he's willfully denying the MVB. Since he's playing rooms about the size he had been with Bright Eyes, and 1.5 hour shows, it's a bit of a challenge. Someday, we can hope, he'll break down and play "First Day of My Life" with MVB for an insanely ecstatic crowd, but that night was not tonight. Happily, it turned out alright anyway.
Starting with "Spolied," which is slated to be on the new MVB record, Outer South, Oberst and his band were tight. As the lights dimmed, you could feel the crowd draw closer to the stage, something I'm not used to seeing. Next, the band played the more upbeat "Moab" before the super-soft "Eagle on a Pole." Throughout the night, Conor and MVB alternated between songs on Oberst's self-titled solo record from last year and the new record due next month. The new record sounds great, but favorites from Conor Oberst, like "Sausalito," "Cape Canaveral" and the rousing "NYC-Gone, Gone" seemed to go over best. My favorite track, "Danny Callahan" sounded great. Sadly, when I got home I realized the poppy piano song "I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)" didn't make the set, according to the notes I kept.
Throughout the night Oberst also let the other members of MVB take turns singing. Even the drummer. From the article our freelancer Michael Lopez wrote after interviewing that drummer, Jason Boesel I knew Oberst wants MVB to be more like an actual band than bunch of hired guns, but it was still jarring to see, and not altogether pleasant. But, when Oberst went simple, as he did when he returned from the encore alone to play the as-yet-unreleased "White Shoes" acoustic, I missed the rest of the band.
Before long, it was time for the closer, "Milk Thistle," which wasn't a Bright Eyes song, but did provide plenty of insight into the world of Oberst:
I'm not scared of nothing, I'll go pound for pound
I keep death on my mind, Like a heavy crown
If I go to heaven, I'll be bored as hell
Like a little baby, At the bottom of a well
My guess is Oberst will never let himself get bored. And I'm sure we'll be plenty happy to watch what he does, even if maybe we'd rather hear "Bowl of Oranges."
Last Night: Conor Oberst at the Marquee Theatre
Better Than: Pretty much any other indie act who refuses to play the hits. Everything Oberst does is at least good, though I don't think, other than "Danny Callahan," there is anything in the MVB bag that's not a major step back from where Bright Eyes was with Cassadaga.
Personal Bias: I just wanted to hear one of the 14 Bright Eyes songs I have with four or five stars in my iTunes. "Make War," "Four Winds," "Southern State," "Easy/Lucky/Free," "Old Soul Song," "Laura Laurent," ...anything!
Random Detail: That hat really was something. Anyone know what it is?
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Further Listening: Have you ever seen the video for "First Day of My Life?" Guaranteed to make you at least a little misty-eyed.
By the Way: As part of our covers project, The Sun Sessions, we had a local singer-songwriter do a cover of Bright Eyes' "Tourist Trap" Check it out.
Oh, and I know: "I do not read the reviews. No, I am not singing for you." Whatev.