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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bright Eyes Recruits Rich Liberals for Revolution at the Fox Theater

Posted By on Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 10:09 AM

Bright Eyes at the Fox Theater last night. Pics by Ian, more after the jump.
  • Bright Eyes at the Fox Theater last night. Pics by Ian, more after the jump.
Bright Eyes
April 12, 2011
@ The Fox Theater, Oakland

Better than: Whatever shit Mike Huckabee listens to.

If Bob Dylan sang the universal in such exquisite poetry that it became personal, Conor Oberst shouts the personal so loudly that it can't help but seem universal. No matter what his mid-'00s proponents claimed, Oberst is no Dylan -- there isn't going to be another Dylan -- but last night at the Fox, the Bright Eyes frontman made a case for himself as the singer best able to cram all the worldly impatience and indulgent vanity of his generation into song.

None of which is to say that the show was perfect, or great -- but it was good. (Dylan wasn't always great either; he's become such a revered figure that it's easy to forget he's a gifted madman, a selfish obsessive with a huge talent for songwriting who spent a great part of his career making shitty music -- a desert some say Oberst is now wandering into.) But beyond the obvious surface-level similarities to Dylan (the affected troubadourian image, the Guthrian vocal phrasing, the political agitation), Oberst succeeds, like his predecessor, in erasing the line between intimacy and universality, in bringing the world into his bedroom and then asking it, like he would ask a friend, why are you so fucked up?

Oberst's music began, of course, in small spaces. Last night he took us back to those "coffin"-sized apartments in Nebraska ("Something Vague") and into his lunatic ravings to a lost lover left on an answering machine ("The Calendar Hung Itself"), recasting them with only slightly less venom, though he was barely 20 when they were released and he's 31 now. Always the impetuous adolescent, Oberst didn't struggle to summon the howling melodrama required of lyrics like, "Does he walk around all day at school with his feet inside your shoes / Looking down every few steps to pretend he walks with you?" And hearing them felt like a brief and invigorating return to our own impetuous adolescence. 

But the Bright Eyes frontman no longer looks like the emo poster boy who became famous for his tunecraft and self-immolating lyrics. Onstage the diminutive Oberst appeared somewhat wearied by the years and the drink -- it was Coors Light in a can last night -- athough his behavior was energetic as ever. Perhaps inevitably, the singer these days seems worn, if not worn out.

As he's aged, Oberst has increased the sonic spaces in his recordings, and broadened the brush strokes of his lyrics. And so we got the ambling country of "Bowl of Oranges," from the breakthrough album (whose title is too long to reproduce here), its in-a-dream image of reassuring a fraught doctor, and the revelation of these lines: "But if the world could remain within a frame, like a painting on a wall/ Then I think we'd see the beauty there, and stand staring in awe." The sold-out crowd breathed a sigh of pleasure when "Bowl of Oranges" rolled through the cavernous theater, as if everyone needed a reminder that this man still thinks things are going to be okay, that the world is still beautiful. A lot of people sang along.

Elsewhere, Oberst took pains to remind us of the world's ugliness. In a roughly five-minute rant introducing "Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)," Oberst tore into Obama: "He's pretty much let me down on every single thing he said he was going to do," Oberst said, chiding the president for, among other things, failing to close Guantanamo. He then asked the wealthy liberals in the crowd to demand more: "I know there's some rich fuckin' Silicon Valley wigs sittin' up in this piece," he spat. Later, when he brought up politics again, Oberst stopped "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning" after a few moments to blast himself for unironically asking the wealthy members of the audience to effect political change: "Maybe we just need to go fucking Egypt on this shit!"

But despite the, uh, strength of those feelings, many of Bright Eyes' newest songs feel impotent compared to the barbed poetry of the band's back catalog. Oberst traded his comfortable country-rock duster for an awkward New Wave biker jacket on the People's Key, and lyrically, we get more vagaries than usual. "Triple Spiral," for instance, worked into a solid rock simmer, but for a lyricist comfortable with being specific to a fault, it's remarkably difficult to figure out exactly what the hell Oberst means to say here. Still, it sounded good, as did "Shell Games," and especially "Ladder Song," a quiet new tune that sounds like it could be 10 years old, and which closed out the main part of the set. "Ladder" hangs unsettlingly between two minor-key chords, resolving at the end with the lines, "You're not alone at anything/ You're not alone in trying to be." If that's not a Dylanesque summation of the struggle for individuality and self-worth in an era when everything has a label and a forum and a Facebook group -- well, what is?

Critic's Notebook

Local hero: Oberst brought out East Bay violinist Anton Patzner, of Judgement Day and Foxtails Brigade, to play fiddle on "Four Winds," explaining that Patzner played on the original recording.

Personal bias related to local hero: After learning that Patzner played the aching, unforgettable fiddle leads on "Four Winds" -- which is in the running for my favorite Bright Eyes song -- I now have a huge man crush on him.

Adolescent moment: After the climax of "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning," Oberst smashed his guitar. And by "smashed," I mean brutally and savagely broke the thing into a thousand pieces by butchering it on the drum riser. Always the impetuous teenager! And yes, there were a few technical malfunctions after that.

Best song intro of the night: "This song is for anyone that's had the word 'faggot' yelled at them really loud out of a pickup truck window," Oberst said, introducing "Poison Oak."

Thank God/Jesus/Conor: Though it marred the latest album with the fantastical ramblings of "shaman" Danny Shaw, Bright Eyes spared us those musings except at the very beginning and end of last night's set, where they were easily ignored. And despite the rockish leanings of The People's Key, there was plenty of old-school Americana in Bright Eyes' sound at the Fox last night.

Jejune Stars
Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
Four Winds
Cleanse Song
Something Vague
The Trees Get Wheeled Away
Shell Games
Approximate Sunlight
Arc of Time (Time Code)
Triple Spiral
Hot Knives
Padraic My Prince
Cartoon Blues
Poison Oak
Bowl of Oranges
Old Soul Song (For the New Order)
The Calendar Hung Itself
Ladder Song

Gold Mine Gutted
Lover I Don't Have to Love
I'm Wide Awake It's Morning
One For You, One For Me

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