I realize most of you would probably need more convincing to make the required freeway crawl than the mere sight of Bright Eyes unveiling new material across two sold-out nights at El Rey. For every Conor Oberst fan who considers him the closest thing to a young Dylan we've got, I come across three times as many that can't stand the earnest fellow with the tremulous voice.
Even die-hards might have thought twice were they in my shoes once the sun went down – when Desert Jeff texted to say that Oberst & Co. wouldn't be on until at least 10:30, when we were expecting a start much closer to 9.
Most people would have turned around and gone home, but what kept my car traveling north was the unpredictability of it all. Oberst just issued a six-song EP behind the apocalyptic protest song "Four Winds," a Neil Young-ish tease a little more than a month before the arrival of his next album, "Cassadaga" (due April 10). But until now I hadn't heard any of it. Jeff had. His quick assessment: "It's a little bit of everything."
That it is. Lyrically, it's typical Oberst – surrealism as social statements disguised as "Cartoon Blues," most of his lines wickedly imagistic, if also convoluted and sometimes too clever for their own good. Musically, however, he's boiled together the best parts of his prolific catalog – the introspection of "Fevers and Mirrors," the rustic folk of "Lifted," the authentic country of "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," the edgy energy of his Desaparecidos project, even traces of the gloom strewn throughout the disastrous detour "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn."
He's the opposite of Young in this sense; where the elder segregates whims, the progeny assimilates them. And his verbose but instantly appealing new tracks are gems: the '70s groover "Stray Dog Freedom" (treated here to a churning finish worth of Crazy Horse), the lulling ballad "Smoke Without Fire" (one of his most Dylanesque constructions), the religious questioning of "Four Winds" (in which he finds little truth in holy texts while nattering on about Satan and "the Whore of Babylon"). For a change, rather than burying insight and overcooked poetry in pieces that, even at their best, can feel like genre exercises, Oberst has struck upon a fusion that is very nearly all his own. What's more, it's the most accessible music he's laid down so far.
Not that he's perfected it. This night, which balanced a horde of fresh cuts with choice bits from "Wide Awake" and a fitting cover of John Prine's Hollywood-nights tale "Crazy as a Loon," Oberst (now sporting shoulder-length hair) still seemed to be finding his footing, both with the material and his latest band.
A combination of some of Omaha's finest – multi-instrumentalist and production whiz Mike Mogis, guitarist Jake Bellows of the band Neva Dinova, sharp fiddler Anton Patzner, a lengthy guest turn from personal favorite M. Ward – the group nonetheless seemed spent from having just flown into town and found itself routinely troubled by rented gear. Surely they'll grow stronger as this tour gathers momentum, but a May 6 stop at Disney Hall worries me; most everything above an acoustic hush in that place will turn to mud.
This, then, was an erratic set at best, though that may have been the intention – to just work out some kinks, despite the fact that Oberst did so in front of a slew of peers. Strolling in a little before 11, just before Bright Eyes finally emerged: Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, in tricked-out denim chic, with girlfriend Brody Dalle on his arm, looking more like a junior Courtney Love than the punk upstart who fronts the Distillers. To my right: Sia, late of Zero 7, and Har Mar Superstar. Behind me: Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. Also spotted: members of Phantom Planet and Jimmy Tamborello, one-half of the Postal Service.
Such an industry-heavy audience might make another artist nervous, but it seemed to have little effect on Oberst – he was as subdued as ever between songs, increasingly explosive during them, and noticeably ill-at-ease throughout.
You just can't get a bead on the guy, which is part of his curious charisma.
And you easily sense that he loathes any respect and adulation he has garnered, in the most immense amounts from young women. At one point a fan down in front handed him a homemade portrait. He quickly handed it off to Mogis, who flashed it to the crowd.
"Sweet," Oberst said. You couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
The disconnection between artist and audience in moments like that can get palpable. Clearly Oberst is off on his own trip, cranking out records rapidly, shunning the benefit of editing, proceeding as he pleases. But the results are as uneven and even off-putting as they are fascinating.
Over dinner beforehand, Desert Jeff and I got into another talk about "six packs" – or, who in recent memory has or is capable of producing six A-grade albums in a row? We both think Wilco will. I think Radiohead is nearly there. Jeff votes for Arcade Fire, but I say it's much too soon to tell, as it is with Jack White.
But Oberst? Not a chance. He'll make more than six great ones, for sure. Some would say he already has. And this new one looks to be one of his greatest.
But six in a row? Here's where he's exactly like Neil Young: He's too restless to ever be that consistent.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3