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Conor Oberst comes into his own

Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst set out to prove his showmanship at Somerville Theatre. (Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe)

SOMERVILLE -- It seems someone has told Conor Oberst to lighten up. He was overdue, mind you.

"I was told the other day that I'm not a very good entertainer," the Bright Eyes frontman told the incredulous crowd at the sold-out Somerville Theatre Wednesday night.

He seemed genuinely concerned about this, asking the audience if it was true. Just in case it was, he then danced petite little ballerina moves and stretched out his arms in "ta-da!" fashion.

Make no mistake: The young man who delivered a blistering set of Southern rock at the Somerville Theatre was not the same musician who played the venue a few years ago.

As a critic, there's nothing more gratifying than being proved wrong. When Oberst played the theater with M. Ward and My Morning Jacket back in 2004, it was enough to make this reviewer a devoted skeptic. A hater, even. Oberst made it especially easy -- the constant indier-than-thou posturing, the pinched vocals that veered into whiny emo terrain, the drunken foray into the audience. At a later local show at Sanders Theatre, he obliterated an amp onstage. Ding! Please turn the next page of "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star."

But it's time to give Oberst credit. He's overdue, mind you. The guy's growing up and finally coming into his own. What's astonishing to remember is that, even at a tender 27, he's already sort of a seasoned musician: He's been making music since he was 13.

If his new EP, "Four Winds," is any indication, Oberst is diving headlong into his country-rock phrase. And it suits him quite well. There have always been glimmers of that, but "Four Winds" is a rowdy melange of fiddles, pedal steel, electric and acoustic guitars, and harmonica. That's exactly the kind of barroom set he played Wednesday.

The audience picked up on his latest direction. Someone called out a request for "Girl of the North Country," from Bob Dylan's "Nashville Skyline," his ballyhooed and short-lived detour into straight country. (And yes, this review has now made its inevitable yet unfounded comparison to Dylan.)

Oberst dueted with his frequent touring mate M. Ward on a handful of songs (including Ward's "Paul's Song" ). The two perfectly captured the evening's high-lonesome feel with "Smoke Without Fire," with just the slightest sheen of reverb to give it a haunted Leonard Cohen essence.

Likewise, Ward's opening set suggested he, too, has come a long way since that 2004 show at the Somerville Theatre. Peering longingly into the crowd, Ward showed he has become an affecting live performer, an acoustic finger-picker hellbent on rocking out. He's the best of both worlds: a John Fahey disciple who shreds like Jimi Hendrix.

James Reed can be reached at