Rock Roundup

Man of Many Bands

Ever-busy Conor Oberst, the Safes and the Monkees come to town.

By - May 27th, 2014 11:14 am
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Conor OberstTop Show: Conor Oberst at Pabst Theater, Saturday, May 31st

Conor Oberst was just 14 when he formed the Omaha band Commander Venus in 1994; the next year, he helped form the influential indie label Saddle Creek. Therefore, he might appear to be an enfant terrible.

On record and onstage, however, Oberst’s voice—a yelping, earnest quaver that he has learned to modulate but not to mute—has made him more an enfant adorable. He has never been as aggressive as similarly adenoidal emo boys.

Oberst has been aggressively prolific, though: as Commander Venus developed its sound, he was already writing so many songs that didn’t fit the CV template that he spun them off into another project he eventually christened Bright Eyes.

By the late 1990s, Bright Eyes had become the primary conduit for his talents, an indie-folk, indie-rock, indie-pop “band” whose one constant member was him. Apart from that outlet, Oberst got involved in side gigs like Monsters of Folk, a semi-supergroup also featuring his frequent BE collaborator Mike Mogis, as well as M. Ward and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James.

In the 21st century, Oberst embarked on an official solo career and issued the first LP of that career, Conor Oberst (catchy title), in 2008. Unable to stay still, he augmented his solo side with the Mystic Valley Band, whose members contributed songs to 2009’s Outer South.

Only the most devoted Oberst acolytes can track every difference among his various musical endeavors, but the most casual fans should be able to grasp that his latest solo work, this year’s Upside Down Mountain, gestures toward maturity.

Moving from Saddle Creek and his other imprint, Team Love, to the Warner Music division Nonesuch (home of Wilco and Natalie Merchant, among others), Oberst doesn’t go full-on adult-contemporary, but he does focus his wild-eyed (one might say bright-eyed) creativity on intelligently written, thoughtfully executed, bedrock American music.

He’s no longer an enfant; he remains adorable.


Thursday, May 29th: The Safes at Frank’s Power Plant

Even by power-pop standards, which can be fascistically demanding (Robbie Fulks nailed the condescending-nerd tone of subgenre fans with his song “Roots Rock Weirdoes”), the Safes are as old-fashioned as Coke in glass bottles and lit cigarettes inside a rock club.

Nevertheless, Mexican Coke—glass bottles plus real sugar—is mighty tasty, and there’s something similarly refreshing about the anachronistic approach these three Chicago brothers take. Their nearly brand-new LP, Record Heat, is a proudly analog blast of ten songs, only one of which tops the three-minute mark, that tickle the ear and leave before they can get boring.

Live, something like this should really snap and fizz:


Thursday, May 29th: Black Star Riders at Turner Hall Ballroom

Every time the great 1970s rock band Thin Lizzy “reunites,” personnel and fans alike have to deal with the serious lacuna left by Phil Lynott, the frontman who died in 1986 at the age of 35, mainly from living as hard and as fast as many of the characters in his best songs.

Scott Gorham, guitarist and the most recent reunion’s only member from the original lineup, dealt more directly with the absence when he decided to write and record new material. He wasn’t comfortable using the Thin Lizzy name for that material, and so Black Star Riders were born.

All Hell Breaks Loose, the Riders’ first album, came out in 2013 and carried on the legacy respectably enough, and this show probably will too, especially since Thin Lizzy favorites will remain on the set list.

Sample rock:


Friday, May 30th: Haley Bonar at Cactus Club

Haley Bonar’s latest album, Last War, is so good that my face grows hot from embarrassment while admitting that I have not heard any of her other albums or EPs. Just on the basis of this one, I’d rank her up there with early Kristin Hersh or mid-period Neko Case.

If you don’t believe me, consider the people who agree: Alan Sparhawk of Low (who issued her …The Size of Planets LP on his own imprint), Andrew Bird (with whom she has regularly shared stages) and Wisconsin boy and Bon Iver helmsman Justin Vernon (who guests on two Last War tracks).

Or you could listen to this:


Sunday, June 1: The Monkees at Riverside Theater

If Bon Jovi can be granted elder-statesman eminence simply because the band survived largely intact—the songs and musicianship have not gotten substantially better over the decades—then surely the Monkees can tour based almost entirely on hits racked up more than 40 years ago.

The guff they got in the ‘60s for being a “Prefab Four” assembled for a youth-angled TV show has died down in the post-Lou Pearlman era, and the death of Davy Jones in 2012 has perhaps bonded the remaining three (Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith) into a tighter delivery system for nostalgia.

Nobody can tell me this doesn’t beat “Livin’ on a Prayer” (and not simply because Neil Diamond wrote it):

0 thoughts on “Rock Roundup: Man of Many Bands”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always liked Connor Oberst (and saw him the last time he was in Milwaukee) because many of his songs are (to me) poetic. It’s hard to think about the Monkees without Davy Jones, but who can resist I’m A Believer, whether you heard it originally or just now on the video clip up above? “I thought love was always meant for fairy tales – meant for someone else but not for me” – who hasn’t felt that way at one time or another? “It seems the more I gave, the less I got”! What some people see as pop has too many elements of truth to easily dismiss! And their enthusiastic gyrations – one doesn’t see anything similar nowadays (or I can’t think of anything similar, The Monkees are unique!).

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