Concert review: Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band (Nov. 2008)

This piece was first published November 25, 2008 in UMass Media.

In his unconventional 15-year career, Conor Oberst’s songs have evolved from angsty and emotional expositions on adolescence to the serious existential and occasionally political ones he is known for writing today. Having followed him closely since 2000, when I lined up outside the Roxy in downtown Boston, I was careful to discern which kind of fans have gathered to see him. Therein lays a central fallacy — that you can tell anything about a person by their appearance — age, clothing… but the style factor has been essential to popular music for a long time, and this was clearly what some would call a “hipster” crowd. Many of those who have never missed a Bright Eyes show resented the influx, circa 2004, of what appeared to be underage girls who seemed to care more about Conor’s heartthrob appeal than the message or meaning of his music. But these concerns quickly dissolved in the excitement to see someone who usually puts on a good show and has been touring regularly all throughout the Bush presidency.

The overtones of tonight’s concert are potentially serious — it’s the day after the presidential election, and if McCain had won, we could easily expect Oberst to be sloppy drunk and announce that he is moving to Mexico. The pollsters and analysts had long considered such a thing impossible, so instead Oberst proclaimed “It’s a good day to be an American.” His participation in Obama campaign rallies and the Vote for Change tour in 2004 placed him in a rich tradition of Democratic activism among rock stars. When interviewers first pressed him to explain these moves, Oberst was quick to distance himself from the image of the “protest singer,” claiming that he never consciously sought out to write political songs, it simply filtered in through his life. So you have an artist whose lyrics and political consciousness has elicited comparisons to Dylan in print, who by most accounts is gracious and amiable, and who possesses that Midwestern charm (Oberst is from Omaha). The spirit of change, a thread that runs through both his songs and the rhetoric of our President-elect, is invested heavily in Oberst’s frequently changing lineup. Instead of continuing under the Bright Eyes moniker and recording for his hometown label Saddle Creek, Oberst decided to put together the Mystic Valley Band and release a self-titled album on Merge Records.

As I stood on the floor at the Roxy and tried to anticipate what the night would be like, my mood began to reveal that I am not one whose temperament meshes easily with the crowd dynamic… sweaty bodies who are too giddy to contain themselves, being pushed around and feeling claustrophobic, with someone who is too tall for the front rows obstructing my view, and then the legs begin to hurt from standing, and you start sweating and suffocating in the hot, oxygen-depleted air… Then someone unwittingly screams into your ear during a song, spoiling a magical moment as it were with something stupid like “I love you Conor!!” I thought, Jesus, I should at least be drinking another beer, but now the people have closed in behind me, blocking me from the bar or the restroom and I don’t want to risk losing my prime spot… simply because I refuse to be one of those rude concertgoers who insists on storming toward the stage or shouting drunken gibberish at the performer.

Yes, you could say I became annoyed as we waited in between sets and overheard conversations about politics and music. Whenever a false sentiment was uttered, I felt the urge to correct someone, but all I had to do is remember why I was there and bob my head to the background music. All of the acts put on an excellent show… You truly had to be there. Some were perplexed by the white rapping of Rig 1, whose poetry-slam style lyrics are laced with scientific vocabulary much like Deltron 3030 or Canibus. Then came the Felice Brothers, a refreshing rootsy group out of the Catskill Mountains. Finally Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band dazzled us with an upbeat set of all new songs — some that aren’t even on the album. He is definitely falling into his niche, despite the formulaic pop structure; his lyrics are the closest thing to capturing the zeitgeist that we have, and the music is always tight and well-rehearsed. But the most understated fact of the Mystic Valley Band is that it contains two songwriters of its own — Nik Freitas and Taylor Hollingsworth. In a humble gesture, Oberst let them sing their own songs during the encore.

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