Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Holly Norton
02/02/2005 | The News Journal | Live Show Preview
In the weeks leading up to Friday's sold-out Bright Eyes show at Philadelphia's Academy of Music, music critics and fans alike led me to believe that I was about to witness the second coming of Jesus Christ. The band's 24-year-old frontman Conor Oberst is constantly compared to Bob Dylan and elevated by fans as the golden spokesperson for a generation desperate for an awakening. With the band's simultaneous release of their fifth and sixth albums "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," Conor proves his staying-power as an
unrelentingly piercing lyricist.

So as I weaved my way through the sea of pubescent hipsters standing in line to buy Bright Eyes merchandise in a desperate hope to broadcast their indie-coolness, I wondered whether they were in over their heads. They must have been about 4 years old when Conor first hit the music scene 10 years ago. Now these teenagers are in the height of a time of angst, confusion, wonderment and regret. How can they possibly get their little heads around the depth of Bright Eyes' music? I grew worried as the giddy teens who surrounded my up-close-and-personal seat traded stories about volleyball practice and junior high gossip. But I was hopeful that the regal venue (one that Conor joked was more suited for "The Nutcracker") would discourage them from ruining things for us "adults," once the show started.

Bright Eyes and opened with "At the Bottom of Everything," the first of nine tracks they would play from "Wide Awake." Two young die-hards stood up, danced in the isle and ignored the jeers from the seated crowd. My friend and I concluded that it was likely the first time the gray-haired usher was forced to exercise crowd control.

The pint-sized Conor was supported by his ever-changing group of musicians that make up Bright Eyes which consisted of three guitarists (himself included) a drummer, keyboardist and a trumpet player. Together they produced a tight, yet unconventional country-folk mix. It wasn't until they unloaded the third song of the night - "Old Soul Song" - that I realized just how much rock this tiny prodigy could emit. He captivated the audience with his voice that was conflicted between sounding timid and powerful; jittery and, at the same time, soothing. Conor responds to his critics in "Road to Joy," a tune reminiscent of "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He seethes: Well I could have been a famous singer if I had someone else's voice/But failure's always sounded better/Let's f*** it up boys, make some noise! A master of irony, Conor stretched his prose prowess to a new level with his show-stopping solo "When the President Talks to God": When the President talks to God do they drink near beer and go play golf when they pick which country should we invade and which heathen souls still can be saved?/Yeah I guess God just calls a spade a spade when the President talks to God.

Throughout "Wide Awake," Conor shares his observations from his perspective - an at times naive 20-something from Omaha, Neb. living in New York and stumbling through life in a post-9/11 America. He writes about politics, love, fear, shame and joy. Just before an emotional performance of "Poison Oak," the clash between the ages came to a head when a frenzied fan screamed, "Conor, I love you!" to which three annoyed concert-goers shouted them down, refusing to tolerate childish obsession. They were there to listen and obsess quietly. Respectfully.

Then it hit me. Angst, confusion, wonderment and regret do not discriminate. Everyone in the audience - young and old - found at least some connection with Conor's verse.

It's just that most (myself included) managed to have a powerful musical experience while remaining seated.


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