Bright Eyes: Bowery Ballroom, New York; Saturday March 3

Bright Eyes: Bowery Ballroom, New York; Saturday March 3

What the bleep? Oberst drops the electro for the Americana dream

Far be it from us to judge anyone by their haircut, but Conor Oberst sure looks like a hippy these days. Perhaps not quite the sandal-wearing, camper van-driving, bullshit-spouting kind from bygone eras of slack personal hygiene, but certainly one of those nauseating people who would stop you in the street to give you a small flower, a hug and an unwanted STD nonetheless. And, it seems the erstwhile bard of lo-fi acoustic angst is taking his music as well as his mop into these realms of constant mellowness.

The astonishing new Bright Eyes album ‘Cassadaga’ encapsulates the finest American rock reference points of the late-’60s and early-’70s, as though punk never happened and shows how Oberst is bravely branching out into something that’s much bigger than himself. It’s a progression that he drills home from the outset tonight through the rootsy, Neil Young-indebted ‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ as well as the unusually feisty ‘Middleman’ which powers through an landscape like a wild boar with a trumpet up its backside. The similarly minded Americana troubadour M Ward is then invited to the stage to add his input for the rest of the set, ‘Reinvent The Wheel’ particularly shining as a sturdy, mid-western stomp and showcase for Oberst’s ever-strengthening lyrical wit. Compared to the electro-experiments and bleepy-buggery of ‘Digital Ash In A Digital Urn’, this is a vision of Bright Eyes reincarnated as a flannel shirt-wearing luddite, but it works remarkably well.

The other thing that’s great about ‘Cassadaga’ is that it’s only an hour long. It doesn’t take Oberst an age to tune up between songs and his six-piece band don’t engage in mystifying, sub-stoner banter about nothing in particular as he does so. These interludes extend the gig well past 90 minutes, at which point the previously enthusiastic Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner lets out a sneaky yawn from side of stage and the crowd lights up with BlackBerry screens as bored punters start firing off texts. Conor Oberst has definitely got a good thing going at the moment but he should remember, generosity isn’t always such a positive trait.

Hardeep Phull