It shouldn’t have taken three Matrix movies for people to realize that much of modern life can be fabricated. Just take the case of Conor Oberst. Here’s a guy who most likely is just an earnest, emotional artist out to make the best music he can. But people in indie-rock gossip circles, in the blogosphere and in the music media have create something much bigger than the wispy boy with an acoustic guitar. He’s been transformed into a new kind of platonic archetype — or, really, many of them all at once. The Indie Pin-Up Boy. The Celebrity Dater. The Emo Progenitor. The Political Firebrand (who many think should stick to singing about broken relationships rather than foreign policy). So it was refreshing that none of those Obersts was on display March 8 in Los Angeles. Instead, Oberst was able to claw back through all the labels others have heaped on him to become yet again just a dude trying to play music that pleases himself, his bandmates and his fans.
The night progressed like the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense does, with more and more people climbing on stage as time passed. After opening singer-songwriter Annie Stela came the sprawling free-folk collective Vetiver, anchored by Andy Cabic. That band already had the stage packed, all dressed in clothes that couldn’t have been made any later than the ’60s, ending their set with an Everly Brothers cover. But then Oberst hauled even more people on stage to back him, many of them adding particularly pretty touches to Bright Eyes’ country-rock sound.
For most songs, Oberst strummed an acoustic while Jake Bellows of Neva Dinova played an electric, often adding Hawaiian/calypso guitar lines. Anton Patzner played a mean fiddle, garnering many a hearty cheer from the crowd after soloing. Another backing member contributed nice flourishes of flugelhorn. And M. Ward showed up about halfway through the set and stayed the rest of the evening, sometimes just playing guitar, sometimes singing with Oberst, sometimes singing lead. Oberst and company stuck mainly to new material already available on the Four Winds EP (including the title track and “Tourist Trap”) or to be found on the upcoming Cassadaga (“Soul Singer in a Session Band,” “No One Would Riot for Less”), due out April 10 on Saddle Creek.
Onstage, Oberst joked about getting wax removed from his ears earlier in the day, stood on the drum platform to rock out, and started “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” before nonchalantly cutting it off after only singing one line. His longer-than-usual hair fell into his eyes, which he never seemed to open anyway as he sang. Were there young, waif-like girls clinging desperately to his every word? Of course there were. But Oberst played take-it-or-leave-it with their affection. When one yelled to him asking if Kirsten Dunst was in the crowd (she was, by the by), Oberst answered, “I think your mom is out front to pick you up.”
A triumphant “Old Soul Song” dissolved into the quieter ending of “Tourist Trap.” And then Oberst and the band were gone. No rock star clichï¿½ of an encore. No labels like that this night. Just an evening of fine music.