Early last spring, buzz started about Conor Oberst's then-forthcoming self-titled solo album. Oberst, who fronts the folk rock outfit Bright Eyes, had never recorded an album under his own name before. Bright Eyes was an ever changing, ever growing exercise in recording and playing, a revolving door of a band where anyone in the recording studio at the time of the recording was a member, however temporarily. Everyone from Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Tim Kasher (Cursive, The Good Life) to Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch have popped up on Bright Eyes records, and while the whiney emo reputation precedes them, they were always a sonically interesting band, playing with varying genres and textures to make really great records (see Lifted or my personal favorite I'm Wide Awake It's Morning). The results were of varying quality, but as far as early 00's indie rock goes, Bright Eyes were one of the most interesting and influential, whether or not anyone wants to acknowledge that fact.
So, why would Oberst jettison a stage name he's cultivated for over a decade? It's not like the "band" broke up, since Conor Oberst basically is Bright Eyes. Actually, that's not exactly true. One key member who's been a part of every Bright Eyes track since the very early days is Mike Mogis, multi-instrumentalist and producer extraordinaire. This was the man who, along with brother AJ Mogis, a talented producer in his own right, defined the Omaha sound. Mogis was the head knob-twiddler for a scene in which Oberst was the poster boy. Saddle Creek Records, the label started by Oberst and his contemporaries in Omaha, bloomed in the early 00's and went on to define a sort of post-rock eclecticism where there was no definitive style. Keeping up with Bright Eyes from their breakthrough LP Lifted to their latest release Cassadaga, it became clear that Mogis was the silent partner in what was often presented as a one man band. Seeing them perform together, Mogis brought a kind of quiet leadership to the troupe, and while Oberst was the face, it was clear that there was more at play beneath the surface. Oberst has said in interviews that his choice to record and perform as Conor Oberst on this latest album and tour had to do with Mogis's lack of involvement in the project. Details of the how or why Mogis is absent haven't been discussed in public, as far as I have read, but the producer's conspicuous absence, coupled with the self-titled album being released on indie heavyweight Merge rather than Saddle Creek, makes one think that something must be up (even the fan site appears to have lapsed!). Last night's show at Terminal 5 only furthered those suspicions for me.
I arrived around 9, for the end of Ben Kweller's set. What can I say about Ben Kweller? His first album, 2002's Sha Sha, is one of my favorites, an album that will always have a special place in my heart because I listened to it so much during high school. I know the whole thing by heart, and while each new LP by Kweller has deteriorated slightly in quality (2004's On My Way is good, 2006's Ben Kweller is okay) I generally support the guy and his all around good vibes. I must admit I was not too psyched to see him last night, certainly I wasn't dreading it, but it wasn't the main draw for me as I only found out he was playing after plunking down the dough to see Oberst and his Mystic Valley Band. Unfortunately we only caught a handful of songs, but the classics sounded better than ever and the new songs sounded really promising. His band was tight, adding even more country twang than ever before, and having a good time doing it. I ended up wishing I'd gotten there earlier. Play more shows, Ben! I'm ready to return to you.
After the set change, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band took the stage at 11:00 on the dot. They started with a song sung by another guy in the band, and then went into "Get Well Cards," I believe, from the new album. The set was made up of songs from that album and new songs. No Bright Eyes classics, which was fine with me, but not with the audience who kept calling requests out for "Lua," "You? Will" or "Anything from I'm Wide Awake." They did not get their requests fulfilled. The set was just alright. It wasn't so bad I felt like I was watching a train wreck, so I guess that's good. But I must say, I've seen Oberst perform as Bright Eyes a number of times before, and it was always an inspired performance, from the time Ben Kweller played as his guitarist at the Knitting Factory in 2003 to the engagement last year at Town Hall that featured those mind-blowing live drawing visuals and, on the night that I went, a guest appearance by Steve Earle. This was nothing like those Bright Eyes shows. There was very little spontanaiety, but more than that, there was very little interest on the part of Oberst himself. He seemed out of it, and like he didn't much care about entertaining the crowd. As I left with my friends, before the encore started, we felt definite disappointment regarding the performance. Something seemed off. I don't know what's going on with Conor Oberst or Bright Eyes, but here's hoping a return to form is on its way.
Conor Oberst [myspace]
Ben Kweller [official site]
Conor Oberst's Mexican Adventure [paste]
(Photo Credit: Nicholas Roberts for the New York Times)