Precious little rivals a 1,000-foot Pikachu for the generation that came of age during the Pokemon craze, except for Conor Oberst. The night before Thanksgiving, just around the corner from parade floats towering in the dark, the introspective singer-songwriter played a special, seated (and sold out!) set at Carnegie Hall. It’s a safe bet Bright Eyes‘ Fevers and Mirrors changed the lives of half the audience members. These fans are lifers — as if Oberst has any other kind.
As the founder and kid-poet of Bright Eyes, Oberst became a bastian of the fledgling aughts movement that some called “emo”, while others called their new religion. Oberst’s basement tapes trickled onto hard drives of a fiercely loyal demographic of poetry lovers and lyric scrawlers. These young loyalists are now the 20-somethings of Manhattan (er, Brooklyn). Judging by the impressed expressions within Carnegie Hall’s famous white/gold interior, their last visit to the historic venue likely involved school buses and bagged lunches.
The audience was familiar with opener Ian Felice, one-fifth of the Americana folk band The Felice Brothers, which began as an NYC subway jam band hailing from Rip Van Winkle’s hometown nestled in The Catskills. The Felices are longtime members of Oberst’s songwriter circle. The crystal acoustics of the hall made the violin/guitar combinations sound uncommonly haunting. But no amount of 19th-century molding masked the hilarity of some of the lyrics (something about every child needs a tree to climb?)
Oberst took the stage to little fanfare and balanced new songs like “You Are Your Mother’s Child” and “Common Knowledge” with plenty of Bright Eyes tunes like “Laura Laurent” and “Classic Cars”, for which he brought on old Omaha friends, Nate Walcott and Ben Brodin. Oberst sat for his whole set as the rotating cast of musicians came and went around him. The alternating performers harnessed the hall’s legendary acoustics with a spectrum of dynamics. His solos seemed starker when contrasted by the all-hands-on deck approach to “Southern State”, with a piano, trumpet, and slew of guitars. It felt more like a Creedence Clearwater-style jamboree.
A xylophone joined in on “First Day Of My Life”, the early cut with puppy love power lines like: “I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you”. The Felice Brothers redeemed some of their sour milk lines when they joined on “Ten Women”, a kickass country tune about runaway romance, accompanied by violin and accordion. Oberst was stool dancing so hard that his signature greasy hair was probably raining on the first few rows.
“I just want to make a clean escape/ I’m leaving but I don’t know where to” Oberst sang on “Landlocked Blues”, alone, contemplative, and acoustic. The song reflects the overwhelming sense of life, the debilitative nature of indecisiveness, and arrested growth that is all too relatable to his millennial fan base. Like everything Gen-Y, this kind of thing irks some older folks – those who claim they couldn’t afford to be “directionless” in their youth.
Oberst was never sage like Joni Mitchell nor politicized like Bob Dylan, yet his lyrics represent a nebulous new generation – one that scholars have projected is “narcissistic” and “post-emotional” – yet one that also celebrates originality, appreciates poetry, and still gathers for a Thanksgiving vigil.
Photo by Mike Zonenashvili
The Big picture
First Day of My Life (Bright Eyes)
Common Knowledge (new song)
Lenders in the Temple (Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band)
Southern State (Bright Eyes)
Classic Cars (Bright Eyes)
At The Bottom Of Everything (Bright Eyes)
Ladder Song (Bright Eyes)
You Are Your Mother’s Child
Laura Laurent (Bright Eyes)
Map of the World (Monsters of Folk)
June on the West Coast (Bright Eyes)
Lua (Bright Eyes)
Make War (Bright Eyes)
Waste of Paint (Bright Eyes)