At the end of the second verse of one of Bright Eyes‘ new songs, “Reinvent The Wheel”—a eulogy for a dead musical idol, possibly Elliott Smith—lead singer Conor Oberst laments to his fallen hero that “you never understood what we loved you for.” Coming as the line does in the song, with guitar chords and drums emphatically struck together to highlight Oberst’s voice and the backing vocals, the moment is both uplifting and tragic, a beautiful example of the ambivalence and catharsis that runs through much of Bright Eyes’ work. But standing in the Opera House at the band’s concert last night, surrounded by an ocean of half-drunk couples with side-bangs awkwardly making out, half-pretty under-aged girls wondering when the slow sad songs were going to start, and most of the rest of us just wondering when it was going to get good, it was hard not to feel that Oberst’s lyrics lamenting the misunderstanding of a crowd’s love might very well apply to him.
For an artist whose catalogue of material is as extensive and as hit-or-miss as Conor Oberst’s, it’s not a huge surprise that he went the route of focusing largely on his more recent releases; after all, the singer, now 27, has gotten consistently better with each release as he moves further and further away from the adolescence that many of his biggest fans are still in. But instead of sprinkling older tracks in with his newer material, Bright Eyes didn’t go much further back than their most recent album, 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. (The only memorable exception was “Spent on Rainy Days,” from Oberst’s 2002 Home split with Spoon’s Britt Daniel.) Even worse, they chose to play the weakest songs off of Morning, and entirely ignored the highlights of the other disc released simultaneously with it, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn. So, no “Lua,” no “Arc of Time,” no “Road to Joy,” no “Another Travelin’ Song,” no “Landlocked Blues,” no “At The Bottom of Everything,” no “Easy/Lucky/Free.” And, off of 2002’s Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, no “Bowl of Oranges,” “From A Balance Beam,” or “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.” It was as if the band went through their most recent releases and, one after another, picked their weakest tracks for last night’s set list. Though the new songs from upcoming releases—”Four Winds” and “Reinvent The Wheel” off the Four Winds E.P., and Cassadaga‘s “I Must Belong Somewhere”—sounded terrific, they all came far too early in the set, setting a high standard that the band simply couldn’t maintain.
Of course, one of the main draws for much of the audience was Conor Oberst himself, but he defied expectations almost as much as his set list did. The definitive indie pretty boy’s once perfectly emo-swooped hair is now mangy and shoulder-length, getting a somewhat confused reaction from most of the crowd. (At the beginning of the set between songs, one girl yelled out “I like your hair,” a comment that came off as sarcastic and which awkwardly silenced the audience for a few seconds—even though it was in earnest, the girl turning to her braces-wearing friend and quietly saying “I meant that” to her just after.) Oberst barely said a word to the crowd for the entire set: all that we got was a brief story about the last time that he was in the crowd at the Opera House (watching a band dressed as pirates, no less), as well as a “thanks very much” and a “let’s hear it for Ohbijou“—the evening’s pleasant if tepid Torontonian openers—every so often.
Oberst’s voice was trembling, warbling, awkward, and fragile, sounding almost always at the point of breaking, and there were moments last night when his words left his lips with such intensity that he literally spat the lyrics out. That bravery coming from his fragility is, of course, part of the appeal for fans, and Oberst’s unusual voice does shine when it is the center of attention. But last night any kind of tenderness seemed offset by the poor song choice and the rest of Bright Eyes’ too-loud band. While at past concerts, the recurring motif has been one of an uncontrollably weeping audience, Bright Eyes didn’t manage to jerk a single tear from any eyes in the house, nor did it seem that the band was trying to. Somehow, we got all bravery and no fragility.
And so, at the end, there was no catharsis for the crowd, and the most applause that the band received all night was when they first walked onto the stage. But with a band as talented as Bright Eyes, there’s always some hope. To crib (and twist) another line from “Reinvent The Wheel”: “I guess everything just circles around to where it was before / So I hope I see you soon in some other form.” Maybe next time.
Photo of Conor Oberst from Tuesday’s show by Carrie Musgrave. Bright Eyes’ Four Winds E.P. is released on March 6, while the full-length Cassadaga will hit stores on April 10. You can also check out the video for “Four Winds” on YouTube, featuring Conor’s new ‘do.