Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Conor Oberst cycled through the rocker’s career arc quicker than most. Much buzzed as a teenager, he was well known by the time he could legally drink and a full-blown star at 23. Then in “Behind the Music” fashion, next came excess, a band hiatus and side projects.
Now just 31, Oberst has reached the reunion phase, reassembling Bright Eyes to record and release “The People’s Key,” the band’s first studio album in four years. On stage at the Riviera on Tuesday, its longtime core trio of Oberst on guitar and occasional keys, Mike Mogis (electric guitar, steel and mandolin) and Nate Walcott (keyboards and brass) were joined by others on bass, more keyboards, percussion and drums.
It was as if they had never been away — both in the sense that Oberst and his half-dozen backing players sounded impeccably sharp, and in that their two-hour set ignored his non-Bright Eyes material entirely.
His fervent followers were right there waiting. Originally slated for the smaller Vic Theater, demand had moved this gig to the Riv, which promptly sold out. And as ever, Oberst’s devoted sang along so lustily that at times his own weary quaver was overwhelmed.
Edgy, nervous pop songs dominate the new disc, here and there gilt with electronic accents and interstellar synths. Those sounds were foregrounded Tuesday, bulked up by the big lineup. Opener “Firewall” rode the fat pulse of two drum kits, and “Jejune Stars” fairly burst with three guitars and two keyboards. “Sure I had my doubts, but I know it now,” Oberst sang, underscored by a band that sounded more confident than ever.
Their confidence extended to the singer, who cast off his usually brooding exterior. During the new “Shell Games,” a verse-chorus rocker that’s maybe the most straightforward thing he’s recorded, Oberst even indulged some rock-star posing, slapping hands in the crowd and grabbing a fan’s baseball cap for his own head.
The band’s full-throated approach added power and purpose to older tunes, too. Drawn from the 2005 album “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn,” the closest sonic analog to the new disc, “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” was pummeling pop. “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” was nothing short of funk. And the roots-rock songs were resplendent.
“Four Winds” rode a whirl of Walcott’s organ and Mogis’ snarling guitar. Mandolin sparkle and mournful French horn made “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” an elegant waltz. Cascading waves of golden steel guitar cloaked Oberst’s voice in the opening of “Poison Oak,” while in “Old Soul Song” the ensemble’s urgency pushed the singer to the desperate edges of his range, his ragged vocal a wounded shout in the storm.
On the down side, Oberst’s latest batch of lyrics didn’t hold up well. A far cry from the memorable tumble of images and quirky rhyme in gems like “Lua” and “Padraic My Prince,” the new tunes were littered with clunky spiritual symbolism. Even so, this show proved that Bright Eyes is recharged, with the breadth and verve to take Oberst wherever his muse leads next.
Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago free-lance writer.