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Conor Obsert scratches surface

Massey Hall, Toronto, December 8, 2012

Reviewed by Jason MacNeil

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Singer-songwriter (and side-project maven extraordinaire) Conor Oberst continues to create a body of work where finely crafted, poignant vignettes are only heightened by his Dylan-esque wordplay. Toss in some of the darker qualities of the late Townes Van Zant for good measure and Oberst - best known as the man behind Bright Eyes - looks like he's just scratched the surface of what could well be a lengthy career.

It was those qualities and more Oberst brought to Toronto's hallowed Massey Hall for nearly two hours Saturday night before a respectable, but small crowd that left the upper balcony empty. And while he's touring behind his new solo album, Oberst reassured the audience Bright Eyes, the Mystic Valley Band and other stages of his work would be represented.

With just himself and his multi-instrumentalist Ben Brodin assisting him on roughly half the 20 songs, Oberst opened things up with the heartfelt The Big Picture and the sweeter First Day Of My Life, the latter from 2005's Bright Eyes album "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning." Yet while one would assume his new album would be front and center in terms of the set, Oberst basically treated the new material as equal to his earlier work. The one true keeper and show highlight was the tender Breezy, which resembled his answer to The Replacements' Here Comes A Regular.

Throughout it all, Oberst demonstrated why he's been revered, whether it was on the simplistic Ten Women or he far more lyrically adventurous Cape Canaveral as fans shouted out kudos. Brodin was also crucial to the show, acting as if he was The Attractions' Steve Nieve to Oberst's Elvis Costello. From his lovely Daniel Lanois-esque accents on guitar to playing the xylophone, Brodin was definitely in the zone on this evening.

Playfully stating he didn't have any children that he knew about, the musician nailed You Are Your Mother's Child, which brought to mind a far darker but honest answer to Harry Chapin's Cats In The Cradle. Meanwhile there were a few more roots-y, rocking moments during At The Bottom Of Everything and Common Knowledge, which went over quite well.

After saying he was drinking six or seven Coca-Colas, Oberst accidentally knocked over one of the cans, spilling its contents onto the stage. Oberst quickly asked a stagehand for a towel to clean up the mess near the conclusion. And much like he began, Oberst closed the night with a intense Waste Of Paint that capped off a stellar, wide-ranging set.

Earlier in the night, and a true treat for anyone who has yet to hear her, Toronto musician Al Spx - known as the singer of her group Cold Specks - simply dazzled with a brief, but brilliant solo set that left many wondering how such an old-sounding soul could be found in a small, youthful body. The musician kicked off her set with a spine-tingling Peace In The Valley before hitting the mark with The Mark.

Spx, nominated for a Polaris Music Prize in Canada earlier this year and getting buzz on the other side of the pond, was without her seven-piece ensemble, but left no doubt it's her tear-inducing pipes that have made such a large impact in such a short time. After a reworking of the Fresh Prince Of Bel Air theme which was done like an old spiritual, the musician nailed Elephant Head and Heavy Hands to an extremely attentive and appreciative crowd.

The highlight without question was Old Stepstone, a song she performed off mic and at the front of the stage, her voice clearly audible and unnervingly captivating on a level like Mahalia Jackson or Emmylou Harris. If you haven't heard of Cold Specks yet, you will.