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Bright Eyes + Jim James + M. Ward

Tim Stelloh
Bright Eyes + Jim James + M. Ward

Bright Eyes + Jim James + M. Ward

City: Chicago
Venue: Vic Theatre
Date: 2004-02-21

Bright Eyes
Here's a not-too-gross generalization of the live Bright Eyes experience, summed up in one word: Conormania. Conor Oberst, the cultish Nebraskan who's been releasing Bright Eyes records for the better part of his teen and adult life, has all but recreated the iconography of his '60s progenitors. V-necks sweaters, hobbit-hair and gripper jeans: he's sensitive indie pop personified. Oberst sings one-dimensional tales of snuffed romance and political critique, and his live show epitomizes the teenybopper self-flagellation for which critics loathe him. He drinks wine on stage. Kids interrupt his set to publicly confess their love for each other. Girls hurl love notes at him between songs. At 24, I've never felt like such a geezer. If the Vic were an island, you'd have a co-ed Lord of the Flies on your hands. Before I'm lumped in with the throng of Oberst-haters, a couple of things should be said that are (sort of) in his defense. First, he had the balls to take two very accomplished (very "mature") songwriters on tour. His style was both deflated and intensified by M. Ward and Jim James, but nevertheless, it took courage to play in such company. Yet this also says something profoundly unscrupulous about our society. Here's this kid (yes, he still looks like an eighteen-year-old) headlining a venue that Bob Dylan is scheduled to play soon. He's the one taking James and Ward on tour, not the other way around. Plus, the show was sold out for weeks in advance. Is it teenybopper love or a teenage passion for the moral, social, and romantic observations of the pop-indie paragon? Who knows, but people were dropping $50 on Ebay for the $17.50 show. Second, his new material lacks the whiny, emo undercurrent of his older stuff. Again, this is a mixed bag. It's more poetic, but it lacks that quintessential "I'm-not-afraid-to-scream-like-your-little-sister" thing. Usually that's just an annoying outgrowth of a developing musician, but it worked for Oberst. The throttling vocal style was his. But sandwiched between James and Ward, he was doing their thing. It's like the difference between Ani DiFranco's earlier stuff and her latest record. Passionate folk-punk vs. adult contemporary? Personally, I still find the first a lot more exciting. Where DiFranco can still pull off some really soulful stuff (because she's actually developed as a singer and musician), Oberst's voice and guitar playing are miniscule, so he just sounded tedious, flat and arhythmic (in a bad way). It's a shame to spend so much time on Oberst, but unfortunately the show was an uneven collaboration. Musicians would drift on and off stage, singing back-ups, playing second and third guitar, keyboards, and slide guitar. It's unfortunate because Ward, who's possibly the most soulful white man on the planet and easily stole the show, played just five of his own songs. Plus it's an all-acoustic tour, so the rockin' cuts off End of Amnesia and Transfiguration of Vincent, which are some of Ward's best stuff, were all but neutered. Still, his acoustic guitar chops are unbelievable (the last time he toured with Bright Eyes he casually riffed on Yes' "Heart of the Sunrise" between songs), and his voice is somewhere between Jeff Buckley and Tom Waits. He spins earnest, poetic tales of heartbreak, love and old friends -- but he's wise, sharp, and avoids the singer-songwriter pitfalls that Oberst compresses so neatly. Even James (vocalist for the southern space-rock group My Morning Jacket), who opened with a heartbreaking rendition of "One in the Same" and closed with an equally profound "Always on My Mind" ("panty-dropping" music according to Oberst, who played second guitar during the song), couldn't hold a candle to Ward's accelerated guitar and bluesman-style vocals. James channeled Neil Young and Don Henley flawlessly, but without the stoner-rock backdrop, he just droned. Somewhere in the middle of Bright Eyes' set, a kid asked Oberst to dedicate a song to a girl for him. Eventually Oberst agreed. For the rest of the show, the kid shouted the girl's name, interrupting songs until the crowd eventually harangued back: "SHUT THE FUCK UP." But the kid never stopped, nor did the crowd. It was a ping pong game of generations -- the younger kids, who were on the floor and there to see "Conor", versus the older crowd that was not there to see Conor, but had to hang around because of the collab set-up. It was an acoustic Rock and Roll High School, and the balcony's agitation was practically tangible. It was beautiful, because it did exactly what Conor Oberst's music makes you want to do: scream along in melodramatic glee, or tell that kid on the mic to shut the fuck up.

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