As Conor Oberst has grown up from the emotionally vulnerable and hugely talented singer-songwriter once lauded by fans and the music press as the next Bob Dylan, he has found himself in a comfortable place. This place is one of creative freedom and getting to handpick musicians to make the music he wants to make. These days Oberst drifts in a seemingly effortless fashion from one project to another and, whether it’s the Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk, Desaparecidos, or his original band Bright Eyes, he has maintained a consistently high level of quality in his work. So much, in fact, that his fans will follow him with wide eyes and open ears through any endeavor, including his latest solo album, Upside Down Mountain. Though Oberst tours often with his various projects, his current tour is centered around this new, country-tinged solo effort.
At Stubb’s on Saturday night – and judging by the setlists from other stops on the tour so far – Oberst and his band dipped heavily into the new material as well as tunes from Mystic Valley Band and, what is easily his most adored work, Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. “Hundreds of Days” got the set going with a cheerful tone, which remained throughout the night and was accentuated by the twangy presence of a pedal steel player, occasional trumpet flourishes, and Jonathan Wilson’s complimentary guitar work. Of course, Bright Eyes songs like “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)” and a solo acoustic version of “First Day of My Life” got the biggest response from the crowd, triggering passionate sing-a-longs from grown men and women who feel a sense of personal ownership over these stirring songs. Oberst appeared touched by the dedication of his audience, blowing kisses throughout the set and complimenting Austin and it’s music culture with his catchy ode to music festivals, “Governor’s Ball.”
His work with Bright Eyes may be his most beloved and widely known, but watching Oberst’s evolution as an artist over the years has been interesting and not without surprises. From a precocious Omaha teen dishing his heart out through sensitive songs to a humble bandleader currently gravitating towards a more fleshed out, Americana sound, Oberst has solidified his place as one of the great musical talents to emerge in the last two decades. In Austin on Saturday he gave the fans what they wanted (Bright Eyes songs, mostly), but also won them over with his newer work, leaving them once again excited to see what he will do next.