Conor Oberst was neither rock's boy genius nor Bob Dylan reincarnate Friday night at the Greek Theatre. His performance was ostensibly flawless, yet he figured more as the capable mouthpiece of an eleven-piece band than as the dominant frontman we've seen before. Bright Eyes' latest release, Cassadaga, is Oberst's most orchestrated vehicle yet, and likewise for the accompanying tour -- which nonetheless failed to sell out its Berkeley date with virtually the entire lawn area left empty. Concertgoers had every opportunity to ignore Oberst entirely. Visuals projected onto a huge screen behind the stage throughout the set demanded attention with bright colors and rapid movements that would satisfy the most ADD kid a week off his meds. Despite a commendable attempt to re-create a flowered garden setting, the stage was dimly lit and perpetually cast in shadow. Though dressed in an all-white suit, Oberst was difficult to keep track of except for by those in the very front rows.
Musically, Oberst and crew -- including four guitarists, two drummers, a violinist, a small string section, a flutist, and more -- sounded excellent, running through a good portion of Cassadaga's tracks and scattered few from elsewhere in his catalogue. Cassadaga is a sad album about journeying across continents and epochs without finding any resolution. During new song "Make a Plan to Love Me," Oberst was upstaged by resplendent female vocals singing the title line. As a live storyteller, he was compelling without offering an enduring message his fans could take home in a doggie bag -- except that to search for yourself is a noble and lengthy task. Any social and political concerns, which Oberst has been known to espouse from time to time -- most notably here -- were buried beneath the densely orchestrated folk-art surface.
Jim James of My Morning Jacket delivered a soulful, sparse set early in the evening. When stripped of the celestial country sheen of My Morning Jacket, James' voice is his greatest asset. It soared through the warm Berkeley air, entering open windows and screen doors a mile away. Playing solo on the massive Greek stage, he looked tiny and sounded huge. An unforgettable highlight at the end of his set came from Z cut "Gideon," with its gorgeous plea to "liiiiiistennnnnnn."
Folk singer-songwriter Gillian Welch busted out a banjo for her second song to a wave of potentially ironic applause. "That doesn't usually excite people that've heard that before," she said, before predicting a new craze for the instrument that's already taken hold among Bay Area musicians. Welch and guitarist and songwriting partner David Rawlings (who nearly stole the show with his high-speed picking and writhing) are an enigmatic duo, whether rollicking through a country number about Elvis or taking time with the brilliant "Everything Is Free."
Though Bright Eyes received the greatest crowd response and earned its spot as the headliner, it's notable that bandleader Conor Oberst emerged as one of the evening's least dominant personalities.
Video: Gillian Welch
Video: Bright Eyes
Video: Bright Eyes 2