[11 October 2011]
“I was dressed in white, touched by something pure/Death obsessed like a teenager/Sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar/I’m still angry with no reason to be”.
In the twilight silence, these words echoed out. Hallowed ground usually blanketed in a hush then rumbled with rock-music reverberation. The cemetery was accustomed to eulogies, but not one casting off a dead persona from a soul very much still alive.
Hollywood Forever is where Conor Oberst laid to rest his wunderkind status and reanimated as a truly confident adult performer. For years, Omaha’s favorite son had fostered a reputation for being this pugnacious non-spectacle onstage. Hiding behind his wounded warble and stringy emo haircut, the immensity of the situation would swallow him. He wouldn’t acknowledge his rabid legion of followers, wouldn’t dream of cracking a smile as he sang with a poetic teenage angst.
After a decade and a half in the music business—a vast chunk of which was spent being pegged as a baby Bob Dylan – the now-31-year-old has embraced the stage. He seems, well, happy. Just listen to the album he released this year, The People’s Key (Saddle Creek). Whereas Bright Eyes’ back catalog has uplifting tunes in the quirkiest sense, this offering encourages unity. Oberst is still world-weary and frets lyrically about emotional stasis, but he’s shouting instead of yelping, declaring instead of muttering.
The band’s presence is noticeably brighter. In concerts past, Oberst would shuffle amid the shadows and expect the audience to make the effort to understand him. Now, he and his rotating group of ragtag instrumentalists project outward. Almost too much. The gleam of the strobes during the nascent pop of “Jejune Stars” could knock a person senseless.
That said, there was something incredibly intoxicating about the trumpet action that spiced up many of the tunes that night. It replaced Oberst’s signature caterwaul with its own blaring, perhaps a swan song for the artist’s youthful petulance. An adaptation of “Taps” rang out during the country-western trills of “Landlocked Blues”, a highlight off the 2005 album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.
Though evolution of his sound and personality was evident, the two-hour setlist overdosed on the aforementioned record, as well as its electro counterpart, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, released that same year. Yet, with his newfound pizzazz, Oberst breathed new life into these staples. He joked prior to breaking into the twinkling “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)”: “This is for all the newly deflowered.” In response, a fawning male fan yelled, “Let’s make out!” There was also a later track, the sweltering “Hot Knives” off 2007’s Cassadaga, which Oberst dedicated to “any middle-aged women going through a midlife crisis” (Possibly a dig at his former fling Winona Ryder?).
The once boy genius’s insularity has turned to humbleness. When a shrieking girl near the barricade handed him a personal letter, he grinned and thanked her. The crowd urged him to read it aloud, but he politely declined, saying it would be too embarrassing for everyone involved.
It comes with the territory: The Cult of Conor is a devoted lot. He is the paragon of attractive indie blokes with something to say. Brains and beauty have no problem winning over an audience—even those no longer wrapped in a mortal coil.
“How exciting it must be to get free entertainment”, he said of the deceased denizens of the unique location. When introducing the folk crescendo of “Poison Oak”, Oberst said: “This song is about death, so this should be perfect”. Certainly, the ghosts of hot-in-their-time actors Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. appreciated the serenade.
The three-song encore served as a loud but reverent funeral for Bright Eyes’ former mysteriousness. From the scritchy “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)” to the raucous “Road to Joy”, to the spiritual jam “One for You, One for Me”, the sound was thunderous. This was rock-star showmanship.