Bright Eyes shows usually have a few things in common. There’s the red wine, of course, swilled by the quietly melodramatic Conor Oberst; there’s the overeager crowd, primped to a T in scarves, immaculately styled hair, and leotard-like jeans; there’s the teenage girl who’s crouched on the ground, head between her hands, sulking over God knows what; there’s the teenage guy who, in a fit of irrepressible camaraderie, screams along to Oberst’s tales of depression and angst, despite the angry pleas of fellow fans to stop.
17 Jan 2005: The Riviera Chicago
Put in context, this particular crowd seemed tame. Oberst is, after all, indie-rock’s man of the hour: the singles form his newly released sister albums I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn debuted at number one and number two on the billboard charts. In the last few months he’s appeared in virtually every rock glossy, somehow emerging with his reputation unscathed. The guy who was once labeled an extremely talented—though a tad simplistic—adolescent songwriter is no more. Wide Awake and Digital Ash have transformed him into a troubadour of depth and complexity.
But for all Oberst’s increasing nuance, it’s still the political sloganeering and dramatic voice-crackles that stir the crowd (not that this is any surprise; it’s pretty difficult to imagine anyone hollering along to many of the tracks on Digital Ash). The show’s climax, after all, came with Oberst’s violently twangy solo rendition of “When the President Talks to God”, a cut that is—surprise surprise—about the unabashed religious beliefs of a certain former Texas governor.
His sputtering vocal stylings still manage to impart an intimacy not often felt in theatres the size of hockey rinks. Even in the nosebleed seats, where I spent the second half of the set, you could almost hear the collective moan during “The First Day of My Life”.
It was “Road to Joy”, the final anthem on I’m Wide Awake, that truly brought the house down. As they had been throughout the show, the band was as technically proficient and propulsive as a jazz group that’s been touring together forever, a fact made all the more impressive by the fact that Bright Eyes only recently started the tour and that the band has a revolving door policy towards members. The song concluded with a glaring horn part as each band member wailed through a final malicious burst. Meanwhile, Oberst lurched around stage like Marty McFly, eventually tossing his guitar in the air and letting it crash on the stage floor beside him.
Though Oberst’s lack of interest in the crowd is frustrating, not to mention downright pretentious, and though his lyricism still occasionally feels like an annoyingly self-righteous hammer to the head, there isn’t a soul in pop music who can do what Conor Oberst does. And for that, he deserves to be commended. His live performance is, after all, the perfect synthesis of all he wails about on his records. Whether you like it or not, his earnest melodrama is in full force.