It was hard to tell at the Pabst Theater on Sunday night, where Oberst's group Bright Eyes kicked off its tour.
Singing "Make a Plan to Love Me" early in his 100-minute set, he seemed to be going for a Johnny Depp as Vegas crooner thing. While his two female drummers chirped out some background harmonies, he flirted with the front rows and toyed with the adoration pouring in from the packed house. Meanwhile, his low-tech light show projected giant images of plucked flower petals onto the stage and onto his white suit.
But by the encore, Oberst was doing the full-blown rock star act, self-destructing his way off the stage by tumbling into the string section and lying under the cello as the band chugged on. Eventually, he flopped into the outstretched arms of the crowd and had to be reeled in by the ankle and carried off by a roadie.
Sprinkled through this movie-of-the-week scenario was Oberst's music, most of it from his most recent CD, "Cassadaga." Anticipated as the unveiling of the "adult" Oberst (at the ripe old age of 27, he's a wunderkind no more), his latest music gives the expansive, Wilco-treatment to his old folk-rock sound.
There were just enough white-clad musicians onstage to resemble a cult (a dozen, including strings and winds), and they gave Nate Walcott's and Mike Mogis' arrangements all the juicy, big-noise energy they needed.
At his best, Oberst was in charge of this juggernaut, snapping off the apocalyptic lyrics of "Four Winds" and digging his guitar into the fiddle-driven hook that kicked off each verse.
But he became more unsteady as the night wore on, and eventually the whole ambitious enterprise seemed to collapse around him. Opening night jitters perhaps, but given the promise of Oberst's raw and authentic talent, one could also see it as a telling sign of what American celebrity culture can do to something that, for a time, was remarkable and true.
Before Bright Eyes, Brooklyn-based Oakley Hall lived up to its band-on-the-brink promise with a terrific set of buzzy, country-inspired rock led by Fred Wallace's spry guitar work and Rachel Cox's big-sky vocals.
McCarthy Trenching of Omaha, Neb., opened the night with a slightly unsteady set of old-fashioned country story songs lead by the George Jones baritone of Dan McCarthy.
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