Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Anders Smith Lindall
01/19/2005 | Chicago Sun Times | Live Show Preview
Conor Oberst is in a tricky spot. Things are looking up for his band, Bright Eyes, which, without radio exposure or a label larger than his hometown Omaha, Neb., imprint Saddle Creek, has found fans enough to fill the spacious Riviera Theatre on Monday night. And with two new albums due in stores next Tuesday, the group appears poised for even wider acclaim.
But Oberst's challenges are steep and even contradictory. With more eyes than ever on him, the stakes are high, and because he's not banking his subsistence on the door take every night, those stakes are increasingly abstract. For Oberst to make the jump from cult icon to legitimate leading man, he'll need more than the reputation for precocity he's traded on before. (Just 24, he's been making records and playing shows for half his life now.)
In those forthcoming discs -- the country-tinged "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning" and the electro-pop "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" -- Oberst finds plenty of fodder to fuel his rise. And though Monday's show wasn't flawless, on the whole it found him skillfully projecting his bedroom ruminations in a newly broad context.
The set drew almost exclusively from "Wide Awake." Culled from fellow Omaha acts such as Rilo Kiley and Tilly & the Wall (who opened the show), Oberst's six-piece backing band turned that record's pleasantly folksy strummers into full-throated anthems flush with pedal steel licks and trumpet blasts.
To detractors, Oberst can come off precious and narcissistic, but on this night he was cutting loose and having fun. You might not know it from his look (dour, bony and fish-belly pale under an inky flop of hair, like an indie-rock Wednesday Adams), but you could feel it in the freewheeling new tunes "At the Bottom of Everything," "Train Under Water" and "Old Soul Song (for a New World Order)." The latter dealt deftly with both love and war, its crashing guitars and blaring brass evoking happy cacophony while Oberst recounted a New York City protest march: "The crowd kept pushing forward until they swallowed the police/Yeah they went wild."
The same enthusiasm enlivened catalog nuggets like "Padraic My Prince," and you could see it in Oberst's body language. He kicked the floor in "Make War," jammed on the drum riser during "Another Travelin' Song" and closed the encore by tossing both his guitar (skyward) and a kiss (to the crowd).
But this was no newly docile or happily compliant Conor. His grapple with the relative enormity of his audience and the challenge of newfound expectations were most obvious in "Landlocked Blues," a "Wide Awake" song with the couplet "I've grown tired of holding this pose/I feel less like myself every time I come home." Cutting short a first take after fumbling it, he moved the microphone and turned his back to the audience. "It's not for you, anyway," he said.
That willful streak was also apparent in Oberst's set list, both for what it included (several prickly expressions of political discontent, like the talking blues "When the President Talks to God") and what it didn't (either single from his new discs).
With Bright Eyes swimming steadily toward the mainstream and observers grasping for comparisons to the classic rock canon, that headstrong trait points to an apt analog. He's not Bob Dylan; Oberst has Dylan's serious visage and verbose knack, but not his lurid imagery or mischievous wit. He's not Gram Parsons, though Parsons' sidekick songbird Emmylou Harris adds angelic harmonies to "Wide Awake" on the album. For role models, Oberst might look to Neil Young, who similarly fuses folk confession with rock aggression while doggedly following his own muse.


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