Live Review: Conor Oberst and friends; Column 251 — Bear Session…

Category: Blog,Column — @ 9:37 pm December 23, 2009

I stand by my earlier statements that Oberst is at his best when he’s the center of attention, i.e., Bright Eyes. Whereas Mystic Valley Band was an interesting diversion, and Monsters of Folk is certainly fun (for him), his best work has been with his original band. Or maybe I’m just being sentimental.

After all, backing him last night on The Waiting Room stage was half of Cursive (Ted Stevens and Matt Maginn), a piece of The Faint (Clark Baechle, stellar on drums, as always) and the ever-talented Dan McCarthy. It got even more maudlin when Simon Joyner joined him for a four-song encore (two Joyner songs, two Oberst songs) along with Alex McManus, Mike Friedman and a plethora of musicians from the opening bands.

Dressed formally in a velvet sport jacket and clean-shaven for the holidays, Oberst backed by his friends ran through a passionate set that included old and not-so-old Bright Eyes songs (including a couple I’d never heard before) along with a few Mystic Valley tunes that seemed Bright Eyes-ish when played by this line-up. The performance felt easy and comfortable, well played, as good as any BE or MV set, but strangely better because everything seemed familiar. The only thing missing was the old-time Conor drama that used to mark his earlier shows; those days are long gone.

Besides, the weather provided enough drama for the evening. Twice during the show Oberst told fans they could crash at The Waiting Room if they were afraid to drive home. I don’t know if anyone took him up on the offer. Probably not, considering that the streets were fine when I left at around 1. Tonight could be a different story entirely. I suspect that regardless of any ice or snow that the show will go on. It has to. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime event. The boys from Mousetrap are in town from Chicago, and I can’t see any way that this show could be rescheduled.

It starts at 9 with The Wagon Blasters, followed by either Beep Beep or Mercy Rule, then Mousetrap. All four for just $8. My hope is that the sleet turns to snow during the show, and we all have enough traction to get home alive — that is if we survive the sheer force, power and concentrated anger of Mousetrap. Tonight’s show was the talk of last night’s show. What will the trio bring to the table after all these years? What will they play? As was reported (here), the band says they intend to play a variety of songs off all their albums and singles. I have a feeling it could be something special… if we all make it home alive.

* * *

I’m beginning to think that Bear Country could be poised to break out in 2010, based on their soon-to-be-released EP. Now all they have to do is get on the road and get heard…

Column 251: The Bear Session
Bear Country reinvents itself with Frozen Lake

Compared to Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session, Bear Country’s new EP, Frozen Lake, is downright uplifting.

In fact, the two bands don’t have much in common other than a similar love for laid-back country swing, and heartfelt melodies, and a great female vocalist, and terrific musicianship. Come to think of it they do have a lot in common despite the fact that the bands’ albums are separated by 21 years.

I was the one who brought up The Trinity Session, offhandedly mentioning that Frozen Lake‘s recording had a sonic density and distance similar to the 1988 classic, which legend has it was recorded in Toronto’s Holy Trinity church with a single microphone. I just assumed the folks in Bear Country knew what I was talking about, until about 20 minutes into the interview, when I said, “Uh, have you heard The Trinity Session?” Of course none of the twenty-somethings had, and I was exposed once again as the presumptuous ass that I am.

After I further described the album’s recording approach, vocalist/guitarist James Maakestad said the band was after a similar sort of ethereal sound when keyboardist Aaron Markley recorded Bear Country at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Strauss Recital Hall. “We were observing the way a note decays, and had to be sensitive to that,” Maakestad said, surrounded by Markley, guitarist/vocalist Mike Schlesinger and drummer Cody Peterson in Markley’s Benson-area home. Vocalist Susan Sanchez and bassist Matthew Owens round out the band.

“We were interested in having listeners hang over the edge of something,” Maakestad said. “We were doing that with sparsity rather than having everything going on at the same time. It’s about phrasing it so that it’s like listening to some story that has dynamic contrast and drama.”

To me, Bear Country is the most surprising band of ’09. When I first heard them perform a few years ago right after Slowdown first opened, they came off as one-dimensional — a hipster-driven cookie-cutter country band that was, quite frankly, boring. I’d written them off as talented, but uninspired and over-hyped.

And then this past June I saw them perform again as part of a Slumber Party Records showcase at The Waiting Room, and was blown away. The formulaic balladry had been replaced with intensely dynamic folk rock that sounded like it fell out of the sky circa 1968. Each player sauntered around the stage with a cool ease and confidence of a band whose every member shared the same great idea. They were unrecognizable, with a sound that reminded me of early Mazzy Star, The Silos, Grant Lee Buffalo, and, yes, Cowboy Junkies, but with a modern, youthful twist.

Their evolution began after spending six months in Bassline Studio at the tail end of 2007. “Through the course of that recording session, we heard how it was developing and realized we didn’t like it too much,” Markley said.

“Hearing yourself back changes your ear,” Maakestad added. “I think it gave us some time to think about what we needed to do to attain the sound we wanted, something a bit more blended. A lot of mainstream music is overproduced — none of it blends so you can hear everything perfectly.”

Instead, the band wanted listeners to get lost in the recording. “Not being able to hear everything at once gives you a reason to listen to it again,” Maakestad said. “Those were some of the things we became conscious of — not having everything be perfectly clear.”

So they threw out most of the Bassline sessions and started over, at UNO, where Markley — a percussion major with an emphasis on music technology — had access to the university’s recording studio and equipment. “We recorded groups of instruments live,” Maakestad said. “That was a change from Bassline, where we tracked every single instrument.”

“Several things were recorded in the (Strauss) Recital Hall,” Markley said. “We also recorded in hallways. We had a lot of different spaces and different sounds.”

The result is a moody 7-song EP with grand scope, open space and beauty, balanced by lyrics typical of the title track’s opening line: “I sat down on the edge / Of a frozen lake / I was thinking to myself, ‘oh man, a poor boy will never catch a break.'”

“Some of the songs are about that feeling of being let down, to the point of becoming indifferent,” Maakestad said. “It’s like waves that keep coming and don’t stop, and you might as well get used to it.”

As much as anything else, Bear Country’s sound is a natural evolution that comes with growing up. “Age was a big contributor,” said Maakestad, who wrote most of the songs with Schlesinger and Sanchez. “I was only 17 when we recorded that first record (2006’s Our Roots Need Rain).”

“A lot of our sound back then had to do with what we were listening to,” Schlesinger added. And what was that? “Rilo Kiley and indie pop.” Since then, the band has graduated to listening to classic and contemporary folk and country. Maakestad said two years of music school got him interested in deconstructing music. “A lot of my influence comes from impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy, stuff like that,” he said.

It all comes together like a forlorn hoe-down, a musical celebration of futility and the perfect way to start a new decade after being beaten down by the last one.

Frozen Lake comes out on 10-inch vinyl Jan. 12, 2010, on Slumber Party Records. Bear Country celebrates the release Dec. 28 at Slowdown Jr. with McCarthy Trenching and Sean Pratt. $7, 9 p.m.

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