However, during the second show of his two-night stint at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, Oberst had nothing to prove. Ever since his 2005 single "Lua" hit number one on the Billboard singles chart, Bright Eyes has carried forth with both indie-label credibility and major-label sales. However, during their Saturday show, the band still seemed intent to prove their mettle as assured composers and performers, with ex-Decemberist Rachel Bloomberg on drums and new permanent band members Mike Mogis, Nate Wilcott and Anton Patzner providing mature backup for Oberst's indie-boy wailings.
Flying through new material from their upcoming Cassadega album, the band gave the eager audience a taste of what the sixth Bright Eyes album would bring. The new songs, none of which were named, were angrier and louder older brothers to the indie-folk on Oberst's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning album, with honky-tonk pedal steel and violin clashing with Oberst's (newly electrified!) guitar performance. One song in particular rushed along with a driving, Johnny Cash-style beat, violinist Patzner slicing through the mix with violent stabs of melody and Oberst delivering his signature yell. Political in tone and carefully referencing country, folk and indie rock, the songs came off with poise, especially new single "Four Winds," released last week.
Older songs were few and far between, with only "We Are Nowhere," "Old Soul Song," "Spent On Rainy Days" and "Laura Laurent" peeking out between new material during the nearly two-hour set. The crowd often yelled for old favorites, but Oberst seemed less concerned with satifying the crowd as much as proving to them that he had grown as an artist since his last albums.
Playing tough and fast during the first half of their set, Oberst and Co. began to falter after inviting indie troubadour M. Ward onstage. Loose performances and technical difficulties added to a sleepy second half, which capped off with "Tourist Trap" from the brand new Bright Eyes EP, Four Winds. A hushed number, the song found Oberst singing about New York with the band softly pushing through with organ and bass, Oberst resigning with the lines "I don't think I live here anymore."
If Oberst was the industry veteran of the night, he seemed to pass the torch to opener, Oakland's own Port O'Brien. Recently named as Ward's new favorite band, Mr. Ward convinced Oberst to have Port O'Brien open the second Great American Music Hall show, alongside Bay freak-folksters Vetiver. Usually only a local act, Port O'Brien nervously took the stage in front of the packed audience. Port O'Brien left the stage well received, hitting big with their closing number, "I Woke Up Today," inviting the entire audience to sing along with the song's primal chant.
Closing the show with a two-song encore, Oberst invited Port O'Brien lead singer Van Pierszalowski onstage to sing "Laura Laurent," off his album LIFTED. Tentatively taking the stage, the young singer played guitar and sang backup vocals, defiantly staring Oberst in the eyes as they shared the mic—seemingly as equals, with Oberst whispering kindly into Pierszalowski's ear as they walked offstage.
One "next big thing" passing the torch to the next? Maybe. Either way, Oberst proved, with his new Cassadega songs, he's hit his stride as a songwriter—and doesn't seem to have plans to falter anytime soon.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3