- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

Omaha has never been known as a rock mecca (it's best export is probably Mannheim Steamroller), but if its musical reputation is growing, city leaders have a certain young man to thank Conor Oberst.
The dark-haired, 22-year-old musician is the brains behind Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos, two bands that channel both his folk and rock tendencies and have led him to being dubbed the "Ritalin Generation's Bob Dylan." His latest record with Bright Eyes has cracked the Billboard Top 200, selling more than 17,000 copies since its release, a considerable feat for an indie label.
That label is Saddle Creek Records, an up-and-coming Omaha outfit run by Robb Nansel (who was in Mr. Oberst's first band, Commander Venus), that is making other groups actually want to move to Nebraska.
Mr. Oberst brings a 15-piece band with him for a show tomorrow night at the 9:30 Club.
He has already released four albums under the Bright Eyes moniker, which features him as the only regular member with a rotating cast of musicians. Add to that a spring debut album from his other band Desaparecidos and a handful of past releases with Commander Venus and Mr. Oberst has a back catalog to rival performers twice his age.
All the increased attention has been a bit unnerving for the introspective singer.
"It's one of those things that obviously has benefits," Mr. Oberst says, speaking on a band mate's cell phone during a recent tour stop in Minneapolis. "It helps us have better tours and it helps get the music out to people who might be interested in it. It's sort of a necessary evil. There's a certain part of me that feels self-conscious."
Playing professionally has been a gradual, natural progression. Growing up in a musical family, Mr. Oberst learned to play guitar at age 10 and was already performing on stage by the time he was 13.
"It was something that I really liked that I could spend time doing," Mr. Oberst says. "I wasn't into sports really or anything like that."
His stint with Commander Venus helped ground him in the reality of the music business, while helping to hone his skills as a writer and performer. Two years ago, at the age of 20, Mr. Oberst dropped out of the University of Nebraska and quit his job as a teaching assistant to pursue music full time.
His reputation has been growing in music circles, and the new Bright Eyes record could be the one that finally breaks him to a larger audience. "Lifted or The Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ears to the Ground," is a mouthful of a title and gives a good indication of Mr. Obert's verbose nature.
Wordiness aside, the record makes for one of the year's more challenging and rewarding listens, as it moves from stark acoustic ballads, to country-flavored tunes to lush, orchestral rock.
"I guess I write a lot about my life," Mr. Oberst says. "The point isn't to confess anything to anybody. I have a basic truth to the song and hopefully it's pretty universal so that everyone can understand it."
The current tour should give new listeners a good idea of what the record is like, as he has brought along 14 other musicians, including a horn section, strings and three drummers.
A European tour will follow in the fall and Mr. Oberst hopes to be back in the States in December to work on new material.
"I've been writing all the time and I'd like it not to be so long between records. it was about two years between this one and our last one," he says.
While major labels have been hovering around Bright Eyes and Saddle Creek Records in general, Mr. Oberst says "we aren't falling for it." That attitude makes sense, considering the current crop of talent now on the label.
"To me it's just real gradual. It's a group of friends and musicians who've been doing the same thing for eight or nine years and now we're getting all this attention," he says. "It's just kind of funny. I'm really proud of Saddle Creek and all the hard work that's going into it."

WHAT: Bright Eyes with M. Ward and the Bruces
WHERE: 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW
WHEN:
8 p.m. tomorrow
TICKETS:
$15
PHONE:
202/393-0930.


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