May 13, 2003

Oberst puts on two shows, one apathetic and one angsty

Bright Eyes is not so much a band as an amorphous collective of Omaha musicians, rotating around the locus of 22-year old singer/songwriter Conor Oberst. Oberst has a lot to face these days: a media buzz that has recently become deafening, preemptively crowning him "the next Dylan," an unfortunate celebrity status placing him in the gossip pages of newsstand magazines (recent allegations include relationships with Winona Ryder and Azure Ray's Maria Taylor), and, perhaps worst of all, the admiration of obsessive fans, some seemingly too young to identify with his music's dark emotional content. What's a kid from Omaha to do?

Oberst took the stage at the Metro promptly at 9pm, backed by a five-to six-piece ensemble including members of The Good Life and The Bruces and the occasional guest star (most notably Jiha Lee of past Bright Eyes fame). The setting, the cabaret Metro, and the modest backing band couldn't have presented a more stark contrast to the last tour, which included the full Saddle Creek orchestra and played in more intimate venues (the Chicago show, for example, took place at the city's other acoustically perfect landmark, the Old Town School of Folk Music). Upon reaching the stage, Oberst was faced with an all-ages crowd, dotted heavily with screaming prepubescent girls, a barrage of flashbulbs, and some guy who yelled out "Play 'Screaming Infidelities!'" (I must shamefully admit to having laughed at the latter).

Unfortunately, Oberst didn't perform well under this stress, dragging himself passionlessly through the entire set. Usually the centerpiece of Bright Eyes, Oberst was content to take a step back, to hide his voice behind the drone of an undirected orchestra. When the set list reached "The Calendar Hung Itself...," normally one of Bright Eyes' most depressing songs (and that's saying a lot), a heartlessly gleeful rendition revealed the band's collective secret: the captain was asleep in his cabin. After trudging through a three-song encore, the band left the stage amid unenthusiastic applause.

When Bright Eyes took the stage at 1:30am for the 18-and-over show, a lot had changed. The audience, while still dotted with obsessive fans, was notably older and less verbose than the last. Oberst was noticeably inebriated and entered, stage left, with his now-trademark bottle of red wine (he's been finishing one onstage every night of the current tour). The second set opened just as the first did with the wonderful new tune "One Foot in Front of the Other," from the newly-released Saddle Creek 50 compilation. As the band proceeded to play through a similar list of songs, drawing equally from older records (Letting off the Happiness, Fevers and Mirrors, and the Every Day and Every Night EP) as well as new material and songs from their most recent effort LIFTED or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, it was as if new life had been breathed into the songs.

Oberst took center stage this time around and proceeded to passionately sing his heart out to a captivated audience. By the time the band reached "The Calendar Hung Itself..." for the second time, there was no escaping Oberst's despair as he sang lines like "I drug your ghost across the country and we plotted out my death/in every city memories would whisper here is where you rest." During the final song, the newly-penned "Road to Joy," which borrows an opening riff from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Oberst screamed "Come on boys, let's make some noise!" before stumbling violently, knocking a few guitars as well as his unfinished wine bottle to the ground. It was quite unclear, after this fiasco, whether or not we were to witness an encore. But after a few minutes, there was Oberst, apologizing to his tour manager in slurred speech and clumsily picking up his guitar. The rendition of "June of the West Coast" that we were treated to was as painfully honest as any teary-eyed fan could have hoped for; stripped down to the bare essentials of his wavering voice and acoustic guitar, Oberst brought his tortured soul out for all to see, revealing the essence of Bright Eyes. The final song, a Bruces cover (the name of which slipped Oberst's mind as he attempted to introduce it, the shy Bruces front man Alex McManus laughing to his right) revealed the full extent of Conor's intoxication. He left the stage very much physically incapable of playing another song.

In all likelihood, what was described above does not sound at all appealing to you. Oberst has more than his fair share of detractors; indie elitists eager to point out the contradictions inherent in his music. How can someone be so self-loathing while embracing the vanity of performance? How can he share such intimate thoughts and weaknesses knowing that hordes of depressed kids are waiting to identify with it? Most importantly, how do we, as an audience, know that what we're hearing is real, how do we know that it's not just some act? On his newer material (some of which is mature enough in its songwriting to deserve the Dylan comparisons) Oberst adroitly addresses these concerns, poking fun at his detractors and embracing his harshest critics. In fact, he's been doing this sort of thing since 2001's Fevers and Mirrors, it's just that everyone (including normally competent publications like Pitchfork Media) foolishly mistook it for genuine self-indulgence. On his most recent full length, Oberst deals with these questions while revealing the true intent of his song writing. "All I know is I feel better when I sing/Burdens are lifted from me, that is my voice rising!" When Oberst exercises the power of his musical voice it transcends the challenges that he faces and, above all, is truly a beautiful sight to witnes