Few artists face the expectations that Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst deals with on a daily basis.
While Oberst puts out albums on his hometown indie label, Omaha's Saddle Creek Records, gets virtually no attention from commercial radio or MTV and plays a blend of orchestral rock and folk far from anything in the mainstream, he is treated like a pop star. He has toured with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M., has been profiled in a number of mainstream magazines and, like virtually every "alternative" rocker of the past 15 years, has been romantically linked to Winona Ryder.
Sunday's show at a packed Kingsbury Hall showed what all the hype is about. Playing for an audience ranging from barely-teens to aging hipsters, Oberst led a six-piece band through a 15-song set that jumped from his excellent recent albums to songs he wrote as a teenager.
Oberst clearly has a more expressive musical mind than most of his 20-something peers, adding a harp, trumpet, xylophone, clarinet and pedal-steel guitar to more traditional instrumentation on stage. Sunday's show had plenty of inspiring moments.
Opening with "Sunrise, Sunset" from 2000's "Fevers & Mirrors" album, Oberst was all business, not saying hello to the crowd until five songs into the show. "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will." from 2002's "Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground" album, gave Mike Mogis plenty of time to shine on the pedal-steel. Oberst strapped on an electric guitar for another "Lifted" song, "False Advertising," whose self-lacerating lines make fun of Oberst's reputation as the overly sensitive, King of Mope-Rock: "Onto a stage I was pushed, with my sorrow well rehearsed. So give me all your pity and your money. Now."
"Hit the Switch," from this year's "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" album, led into a new song, "Napoleon's Hat," about halfway through the show, when Oberst loosened up and started chatting up the crowd. The sweater-clad, skinny singer was a more energetic frontman than on his last Salt Lake City stop, moving around the stage to encourage the musicians around him and banging his head along to his harder guitar parts. People in the audience were reverential and oddly quiet in Oberst's presence, save for the shouts of "I love you, Conor!" between each song.
The energy increased as the show barreled toward its conclusion. Old songs like "Falling Out of Love at this Volume" mingled easily with newer ones like "Old Soul Song," from this year's "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" album. The encore included Oberst's solo acoustic take of "Lua," a bass-and-acoustic guitar version of "First Day of My Life" and the epic closer "Let's Not Sh-- Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)," featuring the entire band bashing away.
It was an excellent end to 90 minutes of music that should give rock fans hope for the genre's future.
Where: Kingsbury Hall
Running time: 15-song set
Bottom line: One of rock's hottest young acts proved that the hype is well-placed with an often-stunning 15-song set.