30 April 2007
First of all, Pitchfork, we get it. Conor Oberst now has long hair. He's 27 now, and decided to try a different haircut then he's had since he was a teenager. Big deal. Saturday's show at the Buell Theatre as well as Cassadaga have now definitively proved that Mr. Oberst has grown up, both musically and personally. Gone is the definitive haircut, gone is the quavering, shouting, pleading voice, gone is the crazy onstage behaviour (well, not quite, more on that later). The only problem is that this new adult Conor Oberst means that the music and the show suffer.
The show started off extremely well, the band took the stage to the beginning of "Clairaudients (Kill or be Killed)" with all thirteen (13!) people looking resplendent in white, then proceeded to play the songs very well while the screen behind them showed various random things the fellow in the back was putting in front of the camera, in this case different shades of blue and a picture of a bird. Of particular note during this song, and the entire show were the two female drummers, including former Decemberist Rachel Blumberg, who together slayed the crowd with precisely choreographed dual drumming. The rest of the show consisted of mostly Cassadaga tracks, with only 5 of the extremely short 15 song set not from this album, and only one from before 2005.
Incidentally, this older song ("False Advertising" from 2002's masterpiece Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground was the highlight of the set. During this song, the guy in the back running the screen started out by drawing straight lines on an Etch-A-Sketch, up until the pre-bridge ("Now all that anyone's listening for are the mistakes"), whereinupon he commenced drawing various curves and scribbles, creating a really cool effect. The screen gimmick ranged from the neutral (blue backgrounds), to the distracting (marker scribbling), to the cliche (picking the petals off of a flower during "Make a Plan to Love Me"), to the sublime (the aforementioned Etch-A-Sketch), but was overall a bit detracting from the show. This screen, rather than masking his apprehension, was just part of the show during which Mr. Oberst was much more confident.
Conor was also much, much nicer than the last time I saw him. During that October 2005 show, he seemed much more withdrawn, drank around 5 PBR's, and played probably the best encore I've seen, "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)", again from Lifted.... During this show, he frequently said "thank you's," told us we were the nicest crowd they'd had all tour, drank only one Rolling Rock, and told the high-schoolers that had skipped Prom to come that that was the sweetest thing he'd ever heard before later making fun of them, much to mine and the older crowd's delight. (Coincidentally enough, I was all set to skip my junior Prom to see Bright Eyes, although first of all, I was forced to eventually go (damn royalty nomination), and second of all, I wouldn't have been annoying as hell during set breaks).
There was, however, something nagging me during the whole show, (and when I listen to Cassadaga) that I couldn't put my finger on, up until right before the closer. At that point, Conor introduced the song ("Road to Joy" from I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning) by saying that they used to be a political band, but were now a hippie band. This pretty much put it into perspective for me. Bright Eyes used to be the vehicle of only Conor Oberst. He was a teenaged/early twenties kid singing about intensely personally things such as substance abuse, depression, and miserably failed romance, and when he wasn't doing that, he was writing phenomenal political songs, (see "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)", "When the President Talks to God", anything by Desaparecidos). Now he's (relatively) clean, more universal in his lyrics, and unfortunately for us, more together. His show was incredibly professional, but that was the problem. The band sounded great playing the new songs professionally and capably, but it wasn't until "False Advertising" and the last song that they, or he, showed any passion. These showed how much I missed the old Bright Eyes, and the way that what he wrote was so easy for me to relate to (except for the substance abuse). Perhaps he said it best himself: "I could have been a famous singer, if I'd had someone else's voice. But failure's always sounded better. Let's fuck it up, boys, make some noise." And indeed, it did sound better, with walls of feedback, Conor running around the stage, dissonant strings from the orchestra, drumset kicking, and even some guy running onstage knocking over the mic stand, which forced Conor to sing the final verse while a roadie held the mic. For that song, the old Bright Eyes was back, imperfect, loud, and mad as hell about the leadership of this country and the war in Iraq.
Disclaimer: Although it may not sound like it, I do still like Cassadaga; it's just not absolutely breathtaking. It is still my second favorite album this year, behind the phenomenal, buy-this-immediately Neon Bible by the Arcade Fire. And I do still really like the new Bright Eyes, they are just not as impactful to me as the old Bright Eyes was/is.
Here are two songs that made me wish that Conor Oberst was still a political singer:
"Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)" from Lifted...
"The Happiest Place on Earth" from Desaparecidos' Read Music/Speak Spanish
And here is the setlist.
Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed)
If The Brakeman Turns My Way
Make A Plan To Love Me
Soul Singer In A Session Band
Gold Mine Gutted
I Believe In Symmetry
First Day Of My Life
No One Would Riot For Less
Road To Joy