Indie rock's Conor Oberst still bright at 400 Bar

REVIEW: The Omaha lyrical wonder dropped his alias but stuck to a similar sound at his first of two sold-out gigs.

Usually when rock singers try to get away with playing entirely new material in concert, the crowd at best waits through it patiently, holding out hope that something old and familiar will come along.

In the case of Omaha indie star Conor Oberst, who played his first of two very sold-out shows Saturday at the 400 Bar, the crowd was as into his dozen new songs as 8-year-old kids opening Christmas presents. It was the kind of show where, when the headliner thanked "everyone for coming out," two different audience members shot back, "No, thank you!"

Oberst, 27, arrived at his favorite Minneapolis club as something of a mystery artist. This pair of gigs was essentially off the books and uncharted. He forsook the pseudonym Bright Eyes, which he has been using since he emerged as a teenage wunderkind a decade ago, and his handlers wouldn't answer questions about what kind of band or songs he'd bring with him.

Turns out, there wasn't all that much of a mystery to keep. His five-piece band included some longtime associates such as Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel, plus guitarist Nik Freitas, who was also the opening act. (Rumors that Oregon tunesmith M. Ward might show up were unfounded.)

Playing a set of unreleased material wasn't the only Neil Young-like thing from Oberst and his cohorts. He admitted/bragged that the band "had to learn all these songs in about 36 hours," a Young trademark. Also, the music in question often had the loose but lush twang of Young albums such as "Harvest" and "After the Goldrush," with piano or organ and a lot of heavy acoustic guitar leading the way.

"Victory is sweet, even from the cheap seats," Oberst sang in the mellow opening tune (song titles were hard to come by, even from some of the band members).

Punchy and poetic lines like that permeated the 90-minute set. The first song also set a theme of the-road-as-salvation, with the lyric, "Hey hey mother interstate/Can you deliver me from evil?" Deeper into the show, Oberst declared, "There's nothing that the road cannot heal."

Musically or lyrically, the songs weren't a radical departure for Oberst, but they traded Bright Eyes' orchestrated and dramatic flavor for a rawer, looser, more roadhouse vibe. The most Bright Eyes-like song was the finale, "Milk Thistle," a delicately delivered ballad during which the bar turned pin-drop quiet.

Oberst returned for an encore that he said would be "a few covers." They were actually tunes from the Bright Eyes discography: "Southern State," "At the Bottom of Everything" and "Man Named Truth." In the latter tune, the singer had to ask the audience for help in getting the lyrics correct. Fortunately, he'd come to the right place for that.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

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