Emo Idol, POp god, or Freedom Rocker? You decide. but choose wisely.When it comes to indie rock credibility, a few names come to the forefront: Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), James Mercer (The Shins), Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes). A marketing explosion later, it's all major label contracts, national tours and MTV face time for these bands. And Oberst has been riding shotgun throughout.
It's a new venture for alt/pop/emo-god Oberst. His backing "Mystic Valley Band" was pieced together from seasoned musicians that have either recorded on one of his labels or supported him on tour. Included in that mix is Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel. A mature and refurbished Oberst has emerged with his Mystic Valley Band and an album full of songs that demonstrate truly polished emotion and lyricism, a direction that properly post-scripts Bright Eyes. The songs "Lenders In the Temple" and "Eagle On A Pole" are complete audible testament to that evolution and embrace a 1960s folk revival. The album comes across as a sort of cut and paste of everything I appreciated about Bright Eyes and surprisingly more than I expected from Oberst.
The Mystic Valley Band proves times haven't changed since the Bright Eyes days. A decade of Bright Eyes material always incorporated an ever-revolving rotation of collaborators from the Omaha music scene and beyond with Oberst at the center. But Bright Eyes was the musical manifestation of a singular obsessed man/musician. I'm Wide Awake and It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn were among the quintessential albums that became the musical subtext of the flourishing indie-rock genre in '04 and '05, setting the bar for everything that followed.
Growing up in Omaha, Neb. Oberst has been writing music and playing bands since age 13. As a co-owner of Saddle Creek records (along with his brother) Oberst had complete control over the direction his music would take. Critics scrutinized him, adopting Oberst as the emo poster boy. In and out of his own band for the decade that followed, Oberst signed a then unknown Rilo Kiley to Saddle Creek and started his Team Love label, which housed one of the most successful indie-rock albums of 2006, Jenny Lewis' solo project , Rabbit Fur Coat. 2007 saw his return as "Jesus Oberst" (Hippie hair, sandals and full on beardom) in a signature, white Lennon-marries-Yoko-Ono-era suit that he wore unofficially as the uniform for his 2007 tour promoting the Bright Eyes release Cassadaga.
The album proved to be a true embrace of Omaha country twang and a welcome departure from the emo-era sound that reflected his maturity as a songwriter. Flash to 2008 and eccentricities seem to have faded and smoothed themselves out and his new approach has only been refined.
But gimmicks, cliches and peronal style are the ingredients in any great musical love affair, and Oberst is no different. Even so, one has to wonder if the beleagured industry still has the power push Oberst over the top (again). The indie genre has been bled dry; what it wants are new bands, new faces and new stars that it can package and sell. While towering success and magazine covers may not be what Oberst seeks, the industry may not feel the same way, preferring to wash him out or bleed him dry. Catch him while he still has plenty of plasma and platelates to spare.
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band
8pm doors, 9pm show Thursday July 31. Midtown Ballroom, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. $22/advanced, $25/day of show. Tickets at Ranch Records or ticketswest.com.