Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst can no longer be accurately described as a wunderkind, but judging from his powerful performance at the Somerville Theater on Wednesday, growing older seems to suit him just fine. No signs of a midlife crisis anywhere.
With a new EP arriving on Tuesday and a full-length CD due next month, Oberst and his ever-revolving five-piece band had plenty of new material to show off for the Bright Eyes loyalists cramming the sold-out theater. Whipping his now-shoulder-length hair about his face, Oberst began with a smattering of new tunes, including the jaunty, dobro-inflected "I Must Belong Somewhere" and the dark, uptempo rave-up "Cartoon Blues.
Oberst's songs often hint at rootsy/country elements, and early on country flavors dominated. The band dove headfirst into honky-tonk with a pedal-steel and fiddle-fueled arrangement of John Prine's "Crazy As a Loon."
Perhaps in deference to his young indie rock audience, Oberst followed the Nashville stylings with some electric guitar muscle on the rocking "Stray Dog Freedom," but beyond the occasional electrified bone, it was dobro and pedal steel that made the biggest impression. An early highlight was new single "Four Winds," its burning fiddle breaks and anthemic pulse making it sound like a bonus track from Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions."
The fiery Oberst got in a few well-placed digs at President Bush, most notably when he announced the name of his protest tune "Old Soul Song" as "Mission Accomplished." But by and large music trumped politics on this night.
Opener M. Ward, who sold-out this same theater last fall, joined Bright Eyes for most of its second half, creating some truly sublime musical moments with his tasteful guitar picking and throaty croon. Oberst, clearly reverential, generously traded verses with the immensely talented songwriter on several of Ward's own tunes, including the delicately beautiful "Lullaby Exile" and the shuffling two-step "'Paul's Song."
A surprisingly understated three-song encore aimed for melancholy rather than bombast, but the steady building shuffle of the closer, "Laura Laurent," gradually burned into a raucous shout, with Oberst handing microphones to the rowdy crowd and stepping into the audience on the backs of fans' seats.
The younger Oberst would have just stage-dived.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3