So which way will the gifted and charismatic singer-songwriter tilt as he moves toward that career turning point that seems inevitable but still hasn't arrived?
Will it be the politically engaged voice of a generation, the one who joined Bruce and Neil on the Kerry-supporting "Vote for Change" tour and broadsided the Bush administration with the scathing "When the President Talks to God" in his own concerts and on "The Tonight Show"?
Or will it be the introspective poet and indie-rock block captain — the cult hero whose lyrics have mapped the treacherous spiritual and emotional shoals of youth, and the binding agent of a vital community of musicians and fans?
At the El Rey Theatre on Wednesday, Oberst's inclination seemed to be more cocoon than crusade as he led his latest Bright Eyes lineup through a focused, flavorful set that made its potent connections through traditional musical values rather than force of personality. Political passions and social concerns are now folded into the textures of an increasingly rich musical vision and the questions of purpose and identity that often fuel his songs.
Balance and purification are prominent themes in the new album, "Cassadaga," whose epic piece "I Must Belong Somewhere" opened the 90-minute concert with a torrent of cascading imagery, suggesting that Oberst doesn't much care anymore if you want to call him a new Dylan.
The Dylan influence bleeds into the strong country flavor that defines much of "Cassadaga" and set the tone of the show, the first of two sold-out nights at the El Rey (Bright Eyes is set to return for a May 6 date at Walt Disney Concert Hall).
The basic Bright Eyes unit of Oberst, Mike Mogis on guitar and pedal steel and Nate Walcott on keyboards and trumpet was supplemented by guitarist Jake Bellows from fellow Omaha band Neva Dinova, violinist Anton Patzner and drummer Rachel Blumberg — a crew versatile enough to traverse a range as varied as country-folk, moody psychedelia and rock freak-out.
Singer-guitarist M. Ward sat in for much of the set, and though some of the jams rambled, it was all bracing and often elevating, allowing Oberst to air both his trembling vulnerability and apocalyptically vehement observations. The set mixed half a dozen new songs with some Bright Eyes staples, including "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," "Make War" and "Smoke Without Fire." Though it was focused, the set never felt rote or locked-in. Oberst actually had his musicians scrambling when he called an audible and dropped in John Prine's wry "Crazy as a Loon" as the fourth number.
At 27, with half his life already devoted to his craft, Oberst still hasn't made a musical or business move away from the protected, self-contained preserve of his hometown and his indie-rock territory. That's disappointed some who want to see him push his potential, but the artistic maturing he's shown in the last few years argues in favor of his caution.
Still, poets are plentiful and rock messiahs are rare, and it would be a shame to lose the chance to see one emerge. In the best possible world, this period of consolidation and growth will serve Oberst as a valuable resource if he ever does decide to give that voice of a generation thing a real try.
CD / LP / MP3
CD / LP / MP3
CD / LP / MP3