“‘Drunk Kid Catholic!'”
“‘The City Has Sex!'”
“It’s a new song,” says the thin man on stage with shoulder -length raven hair. “It’s on our new album.”
The crowd murmurs something not quite approaching approval, unsure of what to think. They wanted the hits, if that’s what you could call them.
And so it is that Conor Oberst, dressed tonight in jeans, a gray button-down, a jacket and most significantly, a big ol’ Texas-style belt buckle, continues to just barely live down his past. As the singer for Bright Eyes – okay, as Bright Eyes, since the band is really Oberst and whoever happens to be around – he’s spent the last decade or so peddling carefully-wrought folk-pop gems, songs about girls and drink and drugs and sadness and his heart his heart his heart. Because of these songs (and his warbly voice and, okay, his doe eyes) he attracts fans of a certain disposition, that disposition being one that alarmingly often leads one to scream, “I want to have your babies, Conor!” Barring the realization of such a fantasy, these fans have the songs, and they scream for them like for lost children, so there’s some desperation in the eyes of the crowd when he finally responds to the requests.
“We actually played all those songs that you’re yelling out for,” Oberst said. “It’s just that it happened four or five years ago. You should have been there, it was great.”
“‘Road to Joy!'”
I think this last request was screamed by the girl in glasses up front who complained about how much she hated hipsters, and then proceeded to talk for much of the set about how all she reads is Bukowski. Never mind her, though, because what’s important is what happened next: Oberst went into “Reinvent the Wheel,” off his recently released “Four Winds” EP, and he did it with a comfort, a confidence, a happiness that’s seemed missing before. This ain’t your father’s (okay, older sister’s) Bright Eyes.
“I know you’ll never come back now to the world where people are/Because you never understood what they loved you for,” he sang (that’s right, sang – not screamed, not whispered, not cried, sang) like a mantra, except he knows exactly what they loved him for, but he’s throwing it to the wind, anyway.
The night’s set was filled with EP rarities and new songs, gracing the audience with precisely two songs from any of his properly released albums before the encore.
Opener “I Must Belong Somewhere,” which he played at 9:30 Club two years ago but just got around to recording for his upcoming record, “Cassadaga,” set the tone for the evening with its weary anxiety, as Oberst tried to convince himself of the title’s message. The singer-songwriter (who did nothing to avoid Dylan comparisons with his heavy use of harmonica) is leaning toward country right now, even more than on “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” and in his new favorite genre he runs the gamut from tears-in-your-beer sadness (he covered John Prine’s “Crazy as a Loon” gorgeously, saying of the tale of sadness and confusion “I didn’t write this next song, but I sure feel like it sometimes.”) to absolute barn-burners (on “Four Winds,” his guitar shredded and wailed with such righteous indignation you’d think Oberst was pissed he got left out of the recent guitar gods issue of Rolling Stone – take that, John Mayer).
Don’t let the pyrotechnics fool you, though. Just because Oberst is taking more of an interest in his guitar (perhaps because of master picker M. Ward, who joined the band on-stage last night, along with a coterie of collaborators, including Nate Wolcott, super-producer Mike Mogis and Neva Dinova’s Jake Bellows) doesn’t mean he’s forgotten the lyrics and introspection that got him to where he is in the first place.
In “Soul Singer in a Session Band,” a sure-to-be-stand-out track on the new record, Oberst practically smirked, “I had a lengthy discussion about the power of myth/With a postmodern author who didn’t exist In this fictitious world our reality twists/I was a hopeless romantic now I’m just turning tricks,” and the audience was disarmed immediately. There weren’t any calls for old songs after that. The encore came, and the old one came out, though (Oberst claimed “If we knew how to play them, we would”).
They weren’t old, though, they were new; they were reborn. “June on the West Coast” featured a frenzied violin breakdown, and show-closer “Make War” wasn’t a delicate paean to an old love so much as a self-assured reminder to himself: “Don’t let the forest grow over that path you came there by.” Bright Eyes is dead. Long live Bright Eyes.