Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Joshua Klein
01/17/2005 | Billboard.com | www.billboard.com | Live Show Preview
If you judged Conor Oberst by the company he keeps, you might think the Bright Eyes singer was a bigger star than even his rising reputation supports. At last fall's Vote for Change shows, he rubbed shoulders with rock royalty, sharing a microphone with the imposing likes of Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, and Michael Stipe as they took turns singing "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." And on "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" -- one of two upcoming Bright Eyes albums -- Oberst's harmony partner on several songs is none other than Emmylou Harris.

Oberst's songwriting has little, if anything, in common with any of these acts. What they probably see in him is a little bit of themselves when they were younger, angrier and more idealistic. The veteran artist Oberst resembles the most is actually Bob Dylan, but unlike the dozens of songwriters compared to Dylan over the years, Oberst actually earns the distinction, if only because he's one of the few artists at his or any other age writing outright protest songs. At those same Vote for Change shows, Oberst was often the first to call out the President by name.

Not surprisingly, those fiery political responses to current events highlighted Bright Eyes' sold-out performance last night (Jan. 17) at Chicago's Riviera. But unlike Dylan, Oberst's fans don't seem to be looking toward the 24-year-old for guidance, or even as a cryptic riddle daring to be deciphered. Rather, Bright Eyes fans remain so blindly rapt that it's no wonder Oberst looked somewhat bored throughout much of the set, much of it drawn from "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning." After all, where do you go next as an artist when your fans are shouting out "you're a genius!" between every song? No wonder Dylan snapped.

Perhaps that explains why Bright Eyes only came alive when Oberst addressed the world around him, a subject larger than even his earnest sense of self-importance. Particularly searing was "When the President Talks to God," a vicious stab at Bush's rule by divine right. Oberst also must realize that the hypnotically beautiful "Land Locked Blues" (formerly titled "One Step in Front of the Other") could be the best thing he's ever written. He's recorded it twice, and the song is strong enough to work as both a show opener and a set closer (it performed the latter duty this night).

At the other end of the musical spectrum, but no less political, was "Road to Joy," an audacious recasting of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as an Eastern dirge that grows in intensity and anger as it drives forward, even as it ends on a somewhat narcissistic note: "I could have been a famous singer if I had someone else's voice /but failure's always sounded better," whispered Oberst before blasting out "let's f*ck it up boys -- make some noise!" He and his band proceeded to do just that, culminating in Oberst knocking over his amp, sending his guitar flying into the air and letting it land with a clang as he stormed off the stage.

It was an explosive enough ending to make you forget that most of the rest of the show was rather staid. Much of "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" veers close to country (hence the involvement of Emmylou), but the current incarnation of Bright Eyes isn't quite smooth enough to pull of the faux twang stuff. As usual, Bright Eyes was at its best when attention was focused on Oberst and in particular his lyrics. And while he may be at his best at his angriest, "First Day of My Life" (itself reminiscent of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright") shows that as Oberst gets older and less precocious, his love songs ring more true. He'd probably bristle at the word "maturity," but Oberst shouldn't deny the inevitable when it so clearly sharpens his art.

Quirky counterparts to Oberst's seriousness were his two openers, CocoRosie and Tilly And The Wall. CocoRosie's sister act mashed together Billie Holiday, beat-boxing, harp, a box of toys and even a hint of opera in an odd twist on the naive folk trend. Tilly And The Wall, on the other hand, incorporate what may be the only element that could make indie-pop any more precious: tap dancing. The ear-to-ear smiles were certainly infectious, but three girls stomping around to an acoustic version of Journey's "Separate Ways" felt like a bad night of tap karaoke.



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