Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Greg Kot
01/19/2005 | Chicago Tribune | Live Show Preview
The test for any singer-songwriter, especially one as hyped as Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, is what he can do alone with just a guitar and a song.

Midway through his sold-out concert Monday at the Riviera, Oberst's band silently retired to the wings and left him to present a song so new he's only been performing it for a few days.

What followed was a song that consisted of six verses spread out over little more than two minutes and a couple of chords. "When the president talks to God, I wonder which one plays the better cop?" Oberst sang.

It was an old theme as fresh as a CNN dispatch: How political leaders use "God-on-our-side" morality to justify violence.

Even in acoustic mode, the song howled; Oberst leaned into each line like a master orator, starting out conversational and matter-of-fact and building to an indignant snarl. His guitar muttered underneath him, then rose up to fill the silence between verses with buzzing punctuations.

The fans, recognizing they were hearing something akin to a musical news bulletin from their hero, grew palpably more excited at the end of each verse.

When Oberst finished it off with a curse that he turned into a two-syllable war cry of his own, they roared. It was an electric moment, a glimpse of why Oberst means so much to his legion of fans.

Already a 10-year veteran of touring and recording, even though he's still a month away from his 25th birthday, the singer balanced his tendency to write wordy, wayward narratives with tightly disciplined arrangements.

Most of the songs in Monday's set have been concert staples for at least two years, though they won't surface on record for another couple weeks. At least one, "Landlocked Blues," has already been recorded twice in two different versions.

When the fans started to anticipate the words, Oberst turned sideways to the audience, refusing to encourage a singalong.

The singer's between-songs patter consisted of a few mumbled thank-yous, and his showmanship was reduced to a few partings of his shaggy hair to reveal sad, deep-set eyes.

He put the music front and center, and with a six-piece band he fleshed out simple folk-rock conceits with flourishes of trumpet and wind-whipped pedal steel guitar.

He borrowed snatches of familiar melodies: a bit of Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" for "First Day of My Life," a snippet of taps for the trumpet solo in "Landlocked Blues," Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" for the raucous guitar-tossing finale of "Road to Joy," myriad Johnny Cash train songs for the furious "Another Travelin' Song."

In Oberst's world, creativity is the last line of defense, the best tonic there is. "I could have been a famous singer if I had someone else's voice," he cracked in a voice that wasn't all that bad, "but failures always sounded better."

As if to illustrate that point, Oberst brought casual elegance to the first few minutes of "Train Under Water," as if showcasing a would-be country hit. Then the singer slowed it to a crawl, just his tremulous voice and Stephanie Drootin's bass. The band picked up the pace again with renewed fervor, and Oberst finished off each verse with a half-beat pause before spanking a chord.

By the end, the singer was raving while Mike Mogis' steel guitar spiraled around him. It was like watching a beauty unravel in public, her glamour melting, failure turned into a song.


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