Art for art’s sake: Bright Eyes vs. The Bobs

It’s likely no one has ever called Richard Greene, the baby boomer bass in a cappella quartet The Bobs, an “indie love muffin.”

It’s also likely that the Bobs’ audience doesn’t shower the group with stuffed animals, flowers or panties — items hipster singer/songwriter Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, refers to as “all the normal things.”

But, then again, Oberst has yet to perform a voice-only rendition of Cream’s “White Room” using kazoo-like mouth effects in place of Eric Clapton’s emotive guitar.

But on Nov. 17, both acts — Bright Eyes and the Bobs — will go head-to-head to win local hearts.

Doe-eyed meets doo-wop

According to Oberst’s publicist, he isn’t doing any interviews right now. But a little reclusive behavior is excusable — the waifish musician has had a busy year, including a recent move from Omaha, Neb., to Manhattan’s Lower East Side; a tour with Michael Stipe and Bruce Springsteen to garner votes for presidential hopeful John Kerry; and the subsequent loss of Kerry followed by the release of two albums — the alt-country-tinged I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and the electro-dance disc Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.

Plus, the 25-year-old, long-touted as a prodigy, had to sulk for shots in Blender, GQ and Spin. Luckily, he wasn’t required to wash his trademark greasy locks.

“They write ‘doe-eyed’ and ‘floppy-haired,'” he kvetched to Blender about the indie-It-Boy labels he endures.

The Bobs are both more hygienic and more forthcoming, though their schedule is somewhat less hectic. “We play 50 to 100 dates a year,” Greene points out. “It allows you to have a life.”

Formed in 1981 (a year after Oberst’s birth), the a cappella group was the brainchild of Gunnar Madsen and Matthew Stull, two unemployed Western Union singing-telegram deliverers. A free classified ad soliciting a bass singer turned up Greene.

“We started doing this for a lark,” he reveals. “We started out doing open mics.” Three years later, the group’s first album was released, and that’s when they realized their quirky barbershop-quartet style might amount to more than a hobby. It was that year they received a Grammy nomination for their arrangement of “Helter Skelter.” This year, the group is touring in support of their new release, Rhapsody in Bob, based around Gershwin’s classic “Rhapsody in Blue.” Hint: On stage, a pianist plays the keyboard parts while the Bobs work out the rest of the instrumentation with their vocal “chords.”

Oberst got his start as a 13-year-old recording in his parents’ basement. He went on to front Commander Venus and co-create Saddle Creek Records, the imprint on which he still records, despite frequent courting by big labels. And though he’s yet to be nominated for a Grammy, his songs “Lua” and “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” debuted in the top two slots on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart last fall.

A fine whine

Although both acts have made some substantial career leaps, neither is playing into the hands of the music-industry machine. In fact, the Bobs are seriously not serious.

“It wasn’t forethought,” Greene clarifies. “We found we were unable to take things seriously, and when the audience responded well, we went, ‘Huh.'”

In an early number, “Art for Art’s Sake,” the quartet delightfully skewers New Age avarice: “Truth, beauty and love, I’d like you to meet my guru/ He came from above, he’ll send you a mantra if you/ Give, give him your love and all your money/ He’ll move to Brazil/ With bucks, bucks in the bank.”

Oberst, too, reflects on a higher power. His Midwestern accent drags out the word “Gaawd” in several of his latest offerings: “Why are you scared to dream of god/ when it’s salvation that you want?/ You see stars that clear have been dead for years/ but the idea just lives on,” he muses in “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,” a duet of sorts with — who else? — Emmylou Harris.

It could be argued that Oberst takes himself too seriously. His writing still teeters on the adolescent side of angsty — the dark, heart-on-sleeve stuff associated with shaggy-haired rockers wearing tattered hoodies. Give the boy a clove, already.

But he’s got the talent to back his mewlings. For a musician only just old enough to rent a vehicle, his material is seamlessly arranged, veering from precious to legitimately soulful just often enough to win him Dylan comparisons.

Not that everyone is ready to jump on that bandwagon. “That whine of his makes it near impossible to listen to his lyrics, which occasionally are profound enough to be scrawled in high school yearbooks,” sniffed a San Francisco Weekly critic.

Well, maybe the Bobs’ lyrical hijinx would be more to that reviewer’s liking (the Bay Area gave birth to the quartet, after all). Happily, Asheville music fans have a choice.

Scorecard

Not that anyone’s counting, but here’s how Bright Eyes and the Bobs measure up:

• The Bobs have released 11 full-length albums in 24 years; Bright Eyes has released seven (depending on how you’re counting) in about eight years.

• Oberst has performed with Emmylou Harris, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and Spoon’s Britt Daniel. He was caught on film making out with Winona Ryder. The Bobs have performed with the Oberlin Dance Collective, the Los Angeles Theater Center, the Minnesota Opera New Music Ensemble, the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, and actor Jason Alexander (Seinfeld‘s George). They’ve not kissed Winona. Yet.

• The Bobs have been labeled “the only New Wave a cappella group in history.” Oberst has been called “the new Bob Dylan.”

• Bright Eyes sings self-important songs about love lost and drugs done (among other heavy topics). The Bobs deliver self-mocking arias about giant robots, hippies, Hindu deities, cowboys, Cincinnati and art. Ideas living on, as it were.


Both groups pull into Asheville on Thursday, Nov. 17. Bright Eyes plays Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at 8 p.m.; tickets are $25. To learn more, call 259-5544. The Bobs appear at Diana Wortham Theatre, also at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28/general, $26/seniors, $23/students, $10/kids. $10 student-rush tickets are available the day of the show. For more information, call 257-4530.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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