Used to be, way back in 1998 when Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst was just 18, audiences adored him for his contradictions. On the one hand, the puny troubadour was a trembling, stage-frightened acoustic guitarist straight out of a bedroom four-track session. And on the other, he was thoroughly fearless, a bold heartbreak magnet so willing to spill his guts that jaded crowds at larger and larger venues all over the country were spellbound. Said dichotomy was set to punky, folk-based melodies (the birthright of kids suckled in the age of Neutral Milk Hotel and Ani DiFranco) and played onstage by a revolving cast of DIY-type Omaha, Nebraska, locals who might have been fugitives from their high-school band trip--which set up Bright Eyes as idols for the all-ages set and Oberst as their spokesman.
Watching Bright Eyes grow (through three full-length Saddle Creek releases, including the standout Fevers and Mirrors in 2000) has at times been as excruciating as actually doing the growing. Coming out of his trembling phase, Oberst appeared on tour in 2002 with his heart on the sleeve of a powder-blue suit, backed by a dozen prom-dress-clad young Omaha women--like a wee, overdressed Leonard Cohen and 12 corn-belt Rebecca DeMornays--then again later in the year with a bloated, if competent, band in casual dress. The contradictions hadn't gone away; they'd just shifted. Though the performances tend to be shambling, the song quality remains--Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Bright Eyes' most recent album, gives us an angry, contemplative Oberst coming to terms with fame. The songs, while arguably less memorable, are better produced, and if the subject matter is a little rote, at least it's honest. Diminishing the amateurish "you too can make music onstage!" factor considerably, Oberst will be joined at Trees by a professional band cobbled together from the best of the (mostly) Midwest: Stephanie Drooten (The Good Life), Matt Focht (Head of Femur), Alex McManus (the Bruces), Mike Mogis (Lullaby for the Working Class) and Nick White (Tilly and the Wall). This corps should be useful in letting Oberst shine, and not just as a diamond in the rough.