The People's Key
Author: Bob Gendron
3/16/11 | Chicago Tribune | www.chicagotribune.com | Live Show Preview
Conor Oberst sounded like a man not meant for modern times or circumstances Tuesday at a sold-out Riviera. The Bright Eyes leader spent a majority of the two-hour performance searching?for clarity, answers, companionship, authenticity, reassurance. At times, watching the vocalist/multi-instrumentalist's righteous struggles proved thrilling. Yet Oberst remains his own worst enemy. He still has the proclivity of a boy who takes himself too seriously and, with a six-piece band at his disposal, indulged in excesses that muddled the music's impact. If the Omaha native is indeed retiring the Bright Eyes moniker as he first hinted in 2009, at least the group is going out with gusto.Now 31, Oberst is far removed from the high-school student that started Bright Eyes as a lo-fi project in 1995. A mainstream indie-rock icon and celebrated songwriter, he serves as the poster boy of his hometown's fruitful local scene, which includes a celebrated record label and roster of bands. His youthful looks make him a heartthrob; screams of adoring female fans drowned out his delicate singing on several occasions. Oberst also unnecessarily contended with his own group and stage setup.Bright Eyes' quest for identity seemingly extended to its garish visual presentation. Suited for overblown prog?not Oberst's vulnerable folk-rock confessions or pop-oriented reflections?lighting towers, illuminated props, flashing strobes and a giant video screen were at odds with most songs. So, too, was the surfeit of new-wave keyboards and electronic effects. The latter decorated tech-heavy material such as "Approximate Sunlight," dragging arrangements into a blotter of dense wordplay and clinical rhythm. Bright Eyes fell into similar traps when Oberst's stream-of-conscious deliveries competed with the din of two percussionists. The fatiguing "Arc of Time" failed to take a breath. Amounting to little else than a disjointed rumble, "The Calendar Hung Itself" got lost in translation.Because of their non-repetitive nature, Oberst's lyrics tended to delight in moments of grandeur. At their worst, they evoked dime-store philosophy and soapbox advice. Yet when framed amidst stripped-down structures that emphasized acoustic guitar, piano and pedal-steel accents, the clearer-toned narratives came across as the intimate, complex thoughts of a lonely soul conversing with himself. Particularly given the urgent, shivering manners in which Oberst expressed ache ("Lua"), love ("Poison Oak"), and self-doubt ("Jejune Stars"). On the climactic "Road to Joy," his raw-throated shouts helped turn an appropriation of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" into a defiant group therapy session. Sometimes, the most direct path is the best route to success.