[16 December 2008]
Recently Ryan Adams has been requesting that his performances be referred to as Cardinals shows, highlighting the fact that he wants desperately to be part of a band and less a personality. The Mystic Valley Band seems to be Conor Oberst’s attempt to do the same—to leave behind the singular focus of his incarnation as Bright Eyes. The problem for both of these talented songwriters is the indelible marks of their first act. In Oberst’s case, his Bright Eyes’ records feature the musicianship of M Ward, Emmylou Harris, and Jim James among others. To expect that the sidemen he now plays with can carry a larger portion of the band’s identity than those artists did may well be too much to ask. This was evident when Oberst turned over the vocal duties to songs written by the band. Despite being solid workmanlike tracks, they fell flat on the audience who was there to see the Conor Oberst show.
Opening proceedings, the Felice Brothers commanded the stage for their forty minutes. In fact, when Oberst took the stage there was no crush as the crowd was fully engaged during the previous Felice set and had not given up their positions near the front of the stage. Nearly at capacity, the venue has a main floor, a staircase to a balcony and the balcony itself for listening purposes, along with a semi-covered patio that pipes in video from the main room. All of these locations were slammed with people well before Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band took the stage.
The set consisted almost entirely of songs taken from Oberst’s 2008 self-titled release, and the front man was not in a conversational mood, it seemed, as he and the band ripped through four songs before he stopped to speak. Even then, what he had to say seemed a tad awkward. Introducing “Gentleman’s Pact” (also the title of the tour only EP it is taken from), he said: “This is a song about big hotels. You have a lot of those here.”
Set highlights included “Danny Callahan”, along with the aforementioned “Gentleman’s Pact”, as the crowd joined in on vocals, but Oberst appeared to be less than thrilled with the sound. After the third microphone switch of the set, Oberst launched his beer can into the wall behind the band. Tough to delineate between show histrionics and genuine frustration, the crew just barreled on and, to Oberst’s credit, so did he. Both “Sausalito” and “Cape Canaveral” (again with an awkward Florida reference) were better than the studio recordings from which they came. On occasion the three-guitar approach that the band has adopted for the live environment seemed too much for songs that, on record, appear to be more delicate. But in the aforementioned cases, the multi-pronged attack elevated certain songs to the sort of revival vibe that Oberst seemed to be reaching for. “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)” received an enormous crowd response before Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band called it a night.
Maybe it is unfair to expect a longer set from an act with just one record but that is not what Conor Oberst really is. With the back catalog of fantastic songs that the prodigious Oberst has written, incorporating more Bright Eyes tunes into the set would make evenings like this more fulfilling. Like it or not, the efforts of this band will always be judged via Oberst’s Bright Eyes output. Embracing it by playing some of those songs may be a far more exciting approach. Nonetheless, the interplay between the band and Oberst was excellent and his vocals (despite the microphone malfunctions) were exceptional. The performance also seemed to satisfy the very eclectic crowd, who showered affection upon Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, even if many were there just for the front man and not his musical colleagues.