Obviously, anyone with a facility for story-songs, machine-gun imagery, and a knack for turning one-liners into rhyming couplets is going to get tarred with that particular brush – especially in such talent-starved times (like the last 40-odd years).
Of course it ain't fair, babe. Not to the original "Bob Dylan," who – like any other artist who hasn't left behind a good-looking corpse – has to overcome the soul-crushing weight of his legacy/audience's expectations every time he enters the metaphorical starting blocks … and not to anyone else.
For his part, the now 27-year-old Oberst has weathered this shitstorm gracefully. Just kept on keepin' on, alternating bittersweet love songs ("Black Comedy") with pointedly political tunes ("When the President Talks to God"), and cranking out such musical mixed-messages as 2005's simultaneously released, stripped-down I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and synth-driven Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, backed by a shifting sand dune of musicians, most of 'em connected to the Saddle Creek mob.
Stayed resolutely independent as well. Which also 'splains why the latest edition of Bright Eyes (with longtime collaborators and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis and keyboardist/trumpeter Nate Walcott joining Oberst as fulltime members) would rather play a pair of Wednesday/Thursday sold-out shows at the El Rey than deal with certain corporate concert-promotion cabals.
Taking the stage last Thursday night, March 8, to the 'tween-set sounds of raw-boned, bottleneck bluesmeister Elmore James's greatest hits (!), this core trio – augmented by drummer Rachel Blumberg, violinist Anton Patzner, and guitarist Jake Bellows (of fellow Omaha homeboys Neva Dinova) – laid down nearly 90 minutes' worth of slow-rollin', country-flavored folk-rock with occasional forays into swirling, atmospheric soundscapes, constantly switching instruments (various combinations of dobro, lap steel, acoustic and electric guitars) to create distinctive textures for each tune.
Although, being halfway truthful for once, it kinda sorta sounded like one big, long, rock 'n' roll gypsies, blood on the tracks, fisherman's blues, too.
Underscoring Bright Eyes' commitment to the unorthodox, most of the set was devoted to new material, either from the band's forthcoming Cassadaga album (due April 10) or the five-song Four Winds EP (which had arrived just two days earlier).
Aside from the EP's title track – which references the spiritualist-founded community in Florida that provides the album's name – and the fraught-with-symbolism portrait of a "Soul Singer in a Session Band," the evening's highlights stretched from the artful dynamics of the curtain-raising "I Must Belong Somewhere" to a fully formed cover of John Prine's "Crazy as a Loon" to the heaven-sent harmonies of the set-closing "Tourist Trap."
Bright Eyes also ushered singer-songwriter M. Ward onstage for several selections, including a shared lead vocal on "Smoke Without Fire" (cowritten by Oberst and also from the new EP). Bellows took a similar turn in the lead-vocal spotlight on the vintage Neva Dinova tune "Yellow Datsun."
Throw in such Bright Eyes fan favorites as "Make War" and "I'll Be Your Friend" – respective homes to such pointed lines as "gossip's as good as gospel in this town" and "you talk when you're drunk like you're writing an article" ha ha ha – and all the college kids could go yeah-yeah-yeah all the way home.
The more casual observer might find this hyper-literate, roots-oriented approach to songcraft far too, uh, opaque and introspective – especially in comparison to that erstwhile "new Dylan" known as Bruce Springsteen – but Oberst doesn't appear interested in using that kinda rama lama fa fa fa showmanship to sell his particular visions of Johanna (or anything else).
Cult status assured, Bright Eyes is set to take it to the local stage again – this time at the Walt Disney Concert Hall – in May.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3