Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Robert Hilburn
02/16/2005 | Los Angeles Times | www.latimes.com | Live Show Preview
Discovering a great new talent may be the most exciting moment of the pop music experience, but there can also be lots of other moments to treasure if the artist's creative impulses continue to grow.

Those other moments are coming fast and furious in the case of Conor Oberst, the captivating young singer-songwriter whose three-night weekend stand at the Orpheum Theatre demonstrated why is he is generating critical excitement reminiscent of the young Bruce Springsteen three decades ago.

Oberst, who turned 25 on Tuesday, has been building considerable critical and indie rock buzz for years with a series of albums on Saddle Creek Records, but his two new releases -- especially the mostly acoustic "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" -- have elevated things to a higher level.

On his current "folk tour," the slender Omaha native, who records and performs under the group name Bright Eyes, is focusing on material from that CD. Its 10 songs vary from biting social commentary to deeply personal introspection, sometimes woven seamlessly into the same tune.

From haunting character sketches of troubled youth ("Lua") to invigorating self-inventory ("Another Travelin' Song") to politically minded rage ("Landlocked Blues"), his highly melodic tunes are rare examples of contemporary music that at once feels instantly familiar yet strikingly original.

Oberst was backed on some numbers Monday, the last night of the engagement, by a band that conveyed both the subtle and vigorous elements in this music. At other times he stood on stage alone, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.

Either way, the singer, who draws chiefly from folk, country and rock traditions, performed with a passion and conviction that made every song seem as if it were getting its definitive rendition. He's not blessed with a naturally strong voice, but its everyman quality makes his rich images seem all the more persuasive.

"Another Travelin' Song," especially, benefited from the aggressive delivery. One of the album's highlights, the tune addresses the youthful search for identity and purpose. It was even more urgent and affecting live as he shouted the lines:

So I go back and forth forever

All my thoughts they come in pairs

I will, I won't, I doubt, I don't.

Similarly, "Road to Joy," which echoes a portion of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," roared with the defiant cry of a young man looking at the world (and himself) and trying to reestablish tarnished ideals.

Whether from being caught up in the anger of the song or just starting a birthday celebration early, Oberst and the band shattered some instruments in a ritual of fury before leaving the stage.

Mostly, however, Oberst faced the adoring audience with a choirboy charm, letting the songs speak for him.

While the music from "I'm Wide Awake" was reward enough, Oberst is too prolific an artist to simply live up to expectations. So he served up new songs that gave the audience moments of discovery.

"I Must Belong Somewhere," sometimes referred to as "Everything Belongs Somewhere" on fan websites, speaks about finding roots and personal connections in a world where it is so easy to feel lost and alone: "The restless ghost in his old hotel ... the homeless man in his cardboard cell ... the painted horse on the somber carousel."

But the evening's most powerful new song was "When the President Speaks to God," a talking blues of a type favored by the early Bob Dylan. Oberst, who joined Springsteen and others on the anti-Bush "Vote for Change" tour last fall, strikes out in the song at what he sees as gaps between the president's actions and religious principles.

When the president talks to God

Are the conversations brief or long?

Does he ask to rape our women's rights?

And send poor farm kids off to die?

Does God suggest an oil hike?

When the president talks to God?

As a bonus at the Orpheum, where Bright Eyes also headlined Saturday and Sunday, the bill included two other worthy groups: Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, which is in the dark, melancholy country-prone style of the Cowboy Junkies, and Neva Dinova, a veteran Omaha band that moves engagingly between wistful and disarmingly rowdy tunes. In keeping with the sense of community between many of the Omaha musicians, Oberst sang harmony with Neva's Jake Bellows on one tune

Oberst and Bright Eyes will return to Southern California on May 1 when they perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. On that leg of the tour, he's expected to focus on songs from his other new album, the more experimental, electronica-tinged, rock-leaning "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn." But this young man's on such a creative roll that the "other moments" may prove to be the real highlight.


Releases

All »

The People's Key

The People's Key

LP / Deluxe LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3