“We thought Miami was a good place to start,” Conor Oberst said at his last South Florida show, at the Fillmore in 2011.
Six years later, the Bright Eyes founder and emo-Americana legend will return to South Florida, this time to perform at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale on the latter end of his tour promoting his most recent album, Salutations, alongside fellow Nebraskan indie rocker Tim Kasher.
In Bright Eyes' and Oberst's solo work alike, Florida marks not only a geographic start but also a metaphysical one. Cassadaga, one of Bright Eyes’ most commercially successful albums, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year — and it's rooted in the open-ended lyrical and physical terrain of North Central Florida.
The album takes its name from a small unincorporated community in Volusia County composed primarily of psychics, spiritual healers, and mediums. On the single, "Four Winds," Oberst recalls arriving in Cassadaga in search of meaning to fill a recent void: "I went back to my rented Cadillac and company jet/Like a newly orphaned refugee, retracing my steps/All the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead/They said, 'You'd better look alive.'"
Florida, geographically and historically distant from the American landscape that gave rise to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, is a place of thematic refuge for this century's country-rock legends, perhaps most notably the late Tom Petty. David Dondero, whom Oberst cites as a primary influence, released his Florida-centric album, South of the South, in 2005. On its titular track, Dondero even assesses Miami: "Found myself in South Beach/And I met some mannequins/Who smelled of coconuts and Coppertone/Like those smells real well/But as far as conversations go/I guess that it stopped at the start/Of the smell."
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As a lyric, it succeeds, but as fact, it misses the mark — but by this point in the album, it doesn't matter much. The plight of the Florida-transplant musician is to sacrifice accuracy for truth, painting personal metaphors on the Sunshine State canvas that often exist only in the artist's mind.
In that regard, Oberst is a master. Like South of the South, Cassadaga isn't about Florida as much as it's about the singer's desire to mine new personal depths that remain unexplored — much like the Sunshine State goes largely unexamined by the rest of the country. Nebraskans Dondero and Oberst must be given credit for tackling Florida as a concept-album project with a narrative complexity where even Sufjan Stevens' 50-states album project might have fallen short. Oberst succeeds in the difficult task of making Floridian sound American and goes a step beyond Dondero by withholding judgment. For this reason, the Oberst-to-Dylan comparisons are apt, if tiresome: It is the folk singer's duty to ground himself first in the terrain and second in his own head.
Friday at the Culture Room, there's a chance you'll hear Oberst sing "Empty Hotel by the Sea" off Salutations, alongside hits such as "Four Winds." You might hear him sing of "the snowflakes falling softly on the beach in that empty hotel by the sea" — clearly not a Florida scene. But in the song's fugitive sibling characters and quiet desperation, Oberst returns to the liminal space of Florida that gave the songwriter his richest narratives ten years ago.