123 Pleasant Street is one of those dank college-rock clubs crouched just off the interstate in every university town. Its performance area is as deep and narrow as a fish tank, and the poor ventilation is not at all helped by standing, industrial-size fans. Two bars, one clean and well-lit, one dim and redolent of Parliament smoke, offer dollar Black Label specials, and the sight of the men’s room floor makes you despair of your pant cuffs. It was a venue perfectly suited to Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band’s current live show, an earnest attempt to channel both the Rolling Stones’ early-’70s grime and the Black Crowes’ sweaty gospel. In cold type that looks dismissive, but it’s not meant to be—and believe me, it’s a fair summation of how Oberst and the band are approaching their summer performances.
Opening acts Deep Sea Diver and AA Bondy, both of whom deserve wider audiences, kicked off the evening spot at 9 p.m. sharp. (We in the union-friendly Mountain State go all squishy for bands that respect the clock-in time.) DSD’s barn-burning set went for the solar plexus—no group with only four people should sound this heavy—and won the crowd over right out of the gate. Bondy, a guitar player and songwriter of raw and arresting talent, was much more reserved. But as the set rolled on, his high-verbal murder balladry had commanded most sets of ears in the place, except for the dink six inches in front of me who was texting her boyfriend every five minutes and wouldn’t have noticed if Bondy had been singing right to her. (Memo to dinks: Go do your incessant texting by the front door or in the bathroom, so the rest of us don’t have to broadcast your poor concert etiquette to the reading public. Also, we can all read what you’re writing, and be advised that a social inept like you doesn’t deserve an athletic lover like that.) And then came the headlining act.
As much as any American indie musician can, Conor Oberst grew up in public. He’s endured roughly a decade and a half of whiplashing opinion regarding his music, much of it from us tongue-waggers in the alternative-music press: It’s coy, it’s amateurish, it’s accomplished, it doesn’t rock, it rocks too much, it’s unfinished, it’s immaculate; he’s a boy genius, he’s an idiot savant, he’s down to earth, and who does this kid think he is anyway? On this tour, Oberst is precisely and exactly who he’s made himself through half a lifetime of watching high-energy rock shows: He’s a Young Lion. The guy screams, struts and dances, preens and cock-walks through damn near a two-hour set that brings to mind not only the Stones and the Black Crowes, but also Springsteen’s energy and Iggy Pop’s stark, staring stage presence. Before anyone cries hyperbole, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the quality of the music, which is fine enough. I’m talking about the band’s onstage persona, which looks to be copped directly from sweeping arena-rock gestures and up-close punk styling. Outer South, the album the band is touring behind, is itself an anthology of styles, from garage rock to Gram Parsons country pop. It’s as if Oberst and Co. were so taken with the songs on that record (as well they might be; it’s a great disc and a great summer record to boot) that they feel they’ve got this one chance to pull off a live show that matches the jumble of genres therein.
This makes for an intense live show, and one that replicates the performances on the album faithfully; so faithfully, in fact, that for all the onstage flash and filigree, very little of it feels spontaneous. My companion, who’d caught Oberst twice previously, talked around it until she could articulate it: It’s odd that such a high-intensity performance in such an intimate space should feel so programmed. The live show is heavy on new material, which is itself heavy on stomping rockers; “Big Black Nothing” and “Nikorette,” among the new songs, provided the most engaging moments of the night. Oberst reaches back into the songbook for older material, but all of it sounds bigger, faster, harder than it ever did before. Even “Ten Women,” the most intimate-sounding track on Outer South, was treated to a beefier rendition.
Much of this high-volume delivery is understandable once you get a look at the band’s tour itinerary, a combination of headline performances in hallowed-ground indie clubs like Athens, Ga.’s 40 Watt, some bigger shows in Detroit and L.A., and a handful of slots opening for Wilco. By any measure, that’s a schizophrenic booking schedule, and you can see exactly why Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band are swinging for the bleachers. More often than not, it works, and at night’s end, it paid off big: The encore-closing performance of “I Don’t Wanna Die (In The Hospital)” hit like a goddamned air raid, and the whole crowd, politely if loudly effusive until that point, went up for grabs.
So it’s an excellent show, technically proficient and carefully executed. If it feels less risky than much of Oberst’s output up to now, I’m not sure that’s a reason to gripe. The band is having a great time, the show rocks loud and hard, and we all went home sweaty, smoky and satisfied, which constitutes some of the many things a great live show can accomplish. Even for the dink, whose post-show plans I’m too much a gentleman to discuss.