Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band: Marquee Theater, Tempe, AZ 4/14/09

In the opening segment of the trailer to the upcoming documentary One Of My Kind, the screen reads “In January 2008 Conor Oberst went to Tepoztlan, Mexico to make a solo record – he accidentally formed a band.” And so it begins the next chapter in the creative life of a brilliant songwriter who has gone from Bright Eyes to Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band.

In the midst of a tour supporting two new Merge recordings  – 2008’s Conor Oberst and Outer South, due May5th – Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band had a couple records’ worth of material to rock out to on an April evening.  Sporting a big flat brimmed black sombrero that he acquired on the road a couple days earlier, Oberst looked all the part of his new free-spirited sound.

Where Bright Eyes’ earlier material always held a comparison to the gloom of the Cure, and the sensitive nature of Oberst’s voice evoked an unmistakable emo quality, Oberst has transformed his sound most recently with 2007’s Cassadaga. Upgrading from the two door sedan to the pickup truck has given Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band a rustic highway sound that evokes Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt and gives the new band excuses to let the guitar, organ and group choruses to dominate.

Although the performance was brief (90 minutes), sloppy at times and the sound quality made it tough to decipher Oberst’s words, there’s a star quality that Oberst has earned that makes even a sour night with a new project – a good night out for his fans. 

The Mystic Valley Band featuring Taylor Hollingsworth (guitar) , Nik Freitas (guitar), Macey Taylor (bass), Nathaniel Walcott (keyboards) and Jason Boesel (drums) covered the bases of all the songs from Conor Oberst including the foot stomping jig of “NYC-Gone, Gone,” the country/western “Sausalitio” and the stark “Cape Canaveral.”  Making sure that this is a full band, each of the other band members (sans  Walcott) got a shot at lead vocals on a single tune, “demoting” Oberst to back-up harmonies. 

While many of the “open” songs made The Mystic Valley Band sound like a “bar band” there was little acoustic room for lyrics and poignancy to rise to the occasion.  It was a different side of the artist whose Bright Eyes compositions have often been tagged as “overly ambitious.” But it was the final song of the evening, the acoustic “Milk Thistle” that gave us a moment to connect one on one with the artist, something that everyone hoped to experience.

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