By: David Schultz
Not too long ago, Conor Oberst served as the musical equivalent to LeBron James, commencing his recording career while still in his mid-teens. At only 27, the talented songwriter possesses that rare combination of an idealistic outlook, youthful optimism and a wealth of recording and touring experience. His trips into the studio typically become prolific, yielding a glut of recordings.
He began 2005 by simultaneously releasing two wildly different albums, the acoustic-folky I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the techno-tinged Digital Ash In A Digital Urn. During a 2006 burst of recording, Oberst focused his sights on Middle America with the results pared down into Cassadaga, his seventh full length album and Four Winds, a companion EP. Popular enough to play New York's larger theaters, Bright Eyes became part of the Big Apple residency movement by taking over midtown Manhattan's staid Town Hall for a seven night run of shows.
Oberst has become synonymous with Bright Eyes, but guitarist Mike Mogis and organist Nate Walcott are just as much of the group as their more recognizable leader. For the Town Hall shows, Bright Eyes also included Jake Bellows (guitar), Anton Patzner (violin), Rachel Blumberg and Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss (drums) as well as assorted cellists and brass. Borrowing a page from the Jack White book on cohesive apparel, they all dressed in white with Bellows wearing a blowsy dappled shirt that might have been stolen from the world's largest set of baby pajamas.
A marvelous venue for any singer-songwriter, Town Hall's coziness inspires an increased sense of respectfulness and reduced chatter from the audience, making it an ideal room to convey every word and note to the audience. Oberst didn't make the best use of the venue's superior acoustics for the Tuesday night show. Not only were many of his lyrics lost within the instrumental mix: in finishing nearly every song with a powerful flourish, Bright Eyes tended to overpower Town Hall's limitations. When you could make out what Oberst was saying, he proved himself a potent songwriter and quite possibly a "little Dylan" in training. Although his imagery can drift towards the heavy handed, Oberst possesses a nice ability to move his narratives towards poignant questions. The songs work best in a live setting with the band's upbeat accompaniment as it gives Oberst instrumental foils to play off. When Oberst goes into folky mode, the songs often wander morosely. His set closing version of "Lime Tree" exemplified that point, Oberst's message getting lost in an endlessly ponderous morass.
Accompanied by her longtime partner David Rawlings, Gillian Welch opened the evening with an hour long set of gorgeously crafted folk and country tunes. The two spotted the set with some fiery guitar interplay moving from the Prince-like crescendos at the close of "Revelator" to the twangy two-step of "Jackson." Rawlings returned to the stage throughout the second half of Bright Eyes' set, joining in on guitar and backup harmonies. He wouldn't be the only helping hand that evening. In an effort to make each show truly unique, Oberst introduced a different special guest each night.
On Tuesday night, Norah Jones and the Little Willies joined Lou Reed, Ben Gibbard, Steve Earle, Ben Kweller and Jenny Lewis on the Bright Eyes guest roster. Oberst tried to build a sense of anticipation only to have the moment humorously torpedoed when Jones let the secret slip by striding onstage during Oberst's introductory spiel. With Oberst sitting by the side of the stage sipping his drink, the Willies played a nice little mini-set consisting of "Love Me" and "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" before Oberst joined them for "We Are Nowhere And It's Now."
Oberst and Bright Eyes had plenty of inspired moments. During one song, Oberst knocked down his flower laden mike stand and before a roadie could get onstage to get it upright it, Oberst simply lay down on the ground and sang while resting on his side. For the encore, Oberst offered his country-tinged "Four Winds" featuring Patzner's violin before bringing Jones, Welch and Rawlings back on stage for a spectacular sing-along version of Welch's "Look At Miss Ohio" which Oberst guided into Neil Young's "Helpless."
If parts of the show were a bit too loud for Town Hall, others were too quiet. The lengthy, sometimes awkward pauses necessitated by equipment changes gave some of Bright Eyes' extremely young fans an opportunity to demonstrate the social ineptness of being young and unchaperoned in public. The silent gaps between songs were often accompanied by the shouts of various youngsters trying to get the attention of Oberst or any other member of the band they could get to respond. Cringeworthy as the outbursts were, they did signify the extent to which Oberst connects with his fans, a skill he's unlikely to lose over the course of sure-to-be lengthy career.