Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


Lifted or The Story is in the Soil....

Author: Nicole Spector
05/01/2003 | | | Live Show Preview
'F**k Emo!' comes the scream outdoors at the top of a pair of fourteen year-old lungs, 'Emo doesn't exist! All music is emotional okay, all music is Emo!'

On this note, I am not particularly inspired to see the show. Not only does this boy have friends, he has a peer group of about three-dozen all hushing and consoling him, stepping to the sidewalk to beg cigarettes off passers-by. Upon stepping in I am not only weary of the crowd who, alongside defending and battling the oh-so controversial term, wear the shout out: 'Conor I love you!!!', I am disappointed to see that at only 8:30 (doors having opened at 8), Arab Strap are already wrapping up their set.

'F**k drum machines!' Aidan Moffat shouts, kicking the little box. I walk in late, to a front row seat and am scared that he is going to frown at me. Contrary to the grumpiness, their set doesn't appear to have been a total failure. Between swigs of Red Stripe, Aidan Moffat delivers low, magnificent rumbles accompanied by rich, mournful strings. It sounds heavenly, in hell, capturing their magnetic sound exactly. Maybe the surliness was even part of the performance.

Conor Oberst, just a few minutes after nine, troops on stage with four others. They start right away, all looking very much like children in a room filled with familiar toys. They move from instrument to instrument, dropping and exchanging. Among them is a banjo, a xylophone, a mandolin, a tubby ring of bells that at first makes the audience giggle until it sounds, hypnotically. Conor is the only one who remains in one position with one set instrument, an acoustic guitar, the silver strings twisting haywire off the knobs. Among these five he is the stickly scarecrow, the cowardly lion, the heartsick tin man, and even, when lifting a demure bang out of his wide eyes, Dorothy. He wears a powder blue cowboy shirt, a sloppy bob which, bowled on his scalp, makes his tiny face even tinier.

'Did you open that bottle of wine?' he asks the bass player who nods in return and points to the floor before him. 'We were on our way over here at around 8,' he tells the audience, 'and I realized I hadn't had anything to drink…so I started drinking the wine really fast. I think I may have over-compensated.' He doesn't seem drunk, in fact he seems desperately sober up against the heavy, engrossed silence, which as the night goes on he breaks down into a communicative silence, one which knows what he means.

I once read somewhere that live Bright Eyes are astonishing. I'm glad because I don't know I'd have picked that word on my own. The percussion is driving, more vehement than on any of the recordings released to date. The amalgamation of sounds, with which the production is associated, is vivid, raw and harmonic, contrasted between raging guitar interludes and soft accented bells. This is a folk band, a rock band, a 'post-modern' band, a music box. And many of these songs are new, referring to the sickness of war, the diseased, impostor media. Just how many songs does Conor have? How many more will he have. We can't imagine him stopping to count. Time is liquid. He's prolific like none other, except for maybe a tree that's had a strap of bark ripped off and is ever-exposing the sap in its wood. He's pouring constantly a genuine element, a life in his blood.

Where does he come from?

'Omaha, Nebraska,' he drawls languidly. 'That's where I come from, that's what this song's bout,' he goes into a twangy folk rhythm. 'You were born inside of a raindrop/I watched you falling to your death,' he sings. He wraps his songs up cleanly, and in spite of his devastating epiphany that hits midway through, they are whole, complete, structured songs.

'This next song's about when everyone you know wants to do something for you and help you out, and you're a total f**king brat – you don't care.' Everyone quiets sympathetically and he goes on to sing about days and time and new sequences of being. He also sings about the seismic end of the world, with a voice that isn't angst so much as nostalgia. In the same frail form that can easily be imagined draped in a hospital gown, with the same trembling voice, he sings about Mexican children playing in the streets, 'and they laugh in a laugh I don't understand, but I love them. Why do I love them?'

And when this angelic boy with the quivering chin screams in the ecstasy of his angst, he's like a doll possessed. Because it'd be easier to think of him, critically at least, as a disenchanted generation's prize poet, like Bob Dylan, who holds himself together by the strings of his wit and cleverness. And not unlike that scruffy, soulful, city-poet, Mr. Dylan, Mr. Oberst is teeming with the rust and roots of his small-town home, the big-time love, and the poet punch lines. But, he's so emotional, so physically dumbstruck with emotion. This is what holds him together as an artist, or breaks him apart. It's this range of emotion that's so effulgent, so embracing. Everywhere from that of a young boy love-struck, to that of a wise man watching the world self-destruct, and all with the hope and nostalgia of a race that's going extinct. This is what marks the crashing guitar tantrum and this is what marks the soft, chiming xylophone that lulls and haunts.

He closes with the words, 'I think you guys have all been real nice, so can you do me a favor? In one year from now can we ban together and get Satan out of the oval office? Let's try and do that o.k.?' For the encore he plays, surprisingly, Tom Petty's 'Listen to her Heart'. This raises the folksy, tuny flavor in his own songs. He ends alone with his guitar to play a new track tentatively called, 'First Day of My Life'. It's slow and pure, 'a love song' he calls it, and has had its heart broken not beyond repair.

We leave in a daze that is not rattled by the street noise, or ruined by the contained apathy of Times Square, perpetually flooding. Now all we can think of is how loved he is, how truly cherished he is by these kids. We've lost sense of time and don't even realize it's well before our bedtime.