“But where was it when I first heard that sweet sound of humility? It came to my ears in the goddamn loveliest melody. How grateful I was then to be part of the mystery, to love and to be loved. Let's just hope that is enough.”
The first time I saw Bright Eyes was at The Bowery Ballroom in the fall of 2002 at a Saddle Creek showcase featuring, in order of appearance, Now It’s Overhead, Azure Ray, The Good Life and Bright Eyes. During The Good Life’s set, Tim Kasher was wailing away, yelping about some relationship gone bad, commanding the room and making people stop in their tracks. I turned to sip my beer and some girl and her boyfriend quietly tapped me on the shoulder, still in their jackets and scarves, and asked, “Is that him? Is that Conor?” ‘Twas then that it was evident that Conor Oberst’s reputation as a thing to see preceded him. ‘Twas then that it was evident that the buzz bin of the music blogs was taking hold and bands were being hyped to a point where their shows were events, rather than musical experiences. That night was free of screaming girls, but a year or two later that would not be the case, as Conor became The Voice of a Generation and captured the undying love of teenage indie chicks across the land.
The screaming girls made Mr. Oberst, Mr. Bright Eyes, a polarizing figure indeed, someone who was easy to dismiss on that fact alone. Add in the quavering voice, the “new Dylan” comparisons, the confessional, hyper-sensitive, self-aware lyrics and his use of simple three chord progressions and you’ve got yourself a backlash to all the crazy the hype and popularity.
But just like with The Strokes, haters ignored all of those catchy songs, the captivating live performances, the sprawling Americana sound (think Neutral Milk Hotel meets Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions band) and, most of all, the lyrics. The “new Dylan” comparisons are clearly tied to those lyrics as well as the simple folk songs and Conor’s snarling delivery, but in the end, like so many before him – John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg and Dan Bern – Oberst has had to live with this silly “new Dylan” tag to an almost absurd extent. He was not just the “new Dylan” because he wrote rootsy folk songs, he was also the “Voice of a Generation”. If you saw him performing “When The President Talks To God” on Jay Leno while rocking a white and red tasseled cowboy outfit, it was easy to think that the protest song was back and someone was taking the mantle as someone who was happy to point a finger at “them”. And if you thought that something was going on during that performance, you were right. But much of Conor’s critical ceiling has less to do with a misunderstanding of Oberst as it does of Dylan, a man who wanted no part of being the voice of anything but top 40 radio. To compare anyone to a guy that completely revolutionized music, whose stamp on what we listen to today might be greater than anyone not named Elvis, would be silly.
No, Conor Oberst is not Bob Dylan. If anything, he’s some mix of Paul Simon and Phil Ochs. But more than anything, as Emmylou Harris has noted, Conor is simply a great songwriter that captures things in words that others dance around and miss. He has a unique knack for marrying a catchy melody with a vocal delivery that completely matches the tone of the lyrics, and that is where the “new Dylan” tag seems to apply. The backlash comes when these lazy comparisons ignore all of the other brilliant things that Dylan did that made him Bob Dylan, but that should not diminish anything Oberst has done and it should not diminish the fact that while no one really wants to say it, Conor was, in fact, rock’s voice of the aughts.
“I should stop pointing fingers; reserve my judgment of all those public action figures, the cowboy presidents. So loud behind the bullhorn so proud they can't admit when they've made a mistake. While poison ink spews from a speechwriter's pen, he knows he don't have to say it, so it, it don't bother him. "Honesty" "Accuracy" is just "Popular Opinion." And the approval rating is high, and so someone's gonna die.
Well, ABC, NBC, CBS: Bullshit. They give us fact or fiction? I guess an even split. And each new act of war is tonight's entertainment. We're still the pawns in their game. As they take eye for an eye until no one can see, we must stumble blindly forward, repeating history. Well, I guess we all fit into your slogan on that fast food marquee: Red blooded, White skinned oh and the Blues. Oh and the Blues! I got the Blues! That's me! That's me!”
Some my most memorable live experiences this decade were a result of Bright Eyes:
“To Love and To Be Loved” at the Bowery that night in 2002 was a revelation – 14 people on stage, horns and energy that you rarely find anywhere, Conor spewing venom and conducting a band of twelve, complete with pedal steel, a full horn section and everything else imaginable. It went on for ten minutes, crescendoing with that final verse that wondered what the hell happened on 9/11 and understanding that the whole world was about to change that more wars were to come. As a frame of reference, I saw Built To Spill and Wilco play a few weeks after 9/11 and neither even wanted to address what had happened, despite, in Wilco’s case, the added, unintended weight of their THF tunes like “Ashes of American Flags”. Conor was the first person to take it all head-on and he never let go until The Bright Eyes moniker went on hiatus in 2008.
In early 2003, with the Iraq war approaching, Conor strode on stage to a packed crowd at The Knitting Factory, sat down with a makeshift band and opened with “Landlocked Blues”, which was then called “One Foot In Front of the Other”. If you were ever wondering what the hype was about, this was the place and the song to see, with Conor’s eyes lighting up as he pleaded for everyone to walk away from the insanity. Rob Sheffield from Rolling Stone was standing next to us and nodding his head as if to say “that’s it, right there”.
In the early summer of 2003, when Long Island’s ill-fated Field Day festival was moved to The Meadowlands parking lot, Conor put together one of the best shows I saw this decade on the following night: Bright Eyes, Jim James and Beth Orton, for $15 at The Bowery. Not only did Orton kill it, but James absolutely blew the roof off with just his guitar and voice and Bright Eyes had one of the strongest lineups I had seen, with a full, tight, well-rehearsed band amping up his songs and rocking the place ‘til way into the early morning.
The seven nights of Town Hall shows in 2007 with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were an event for all the right reasons. First, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were playing. Second, it was at The Town Hall, an absolutely perfect venue in terms of intimacy and stateliness. Third, each night featured a different special guest appearance, from Lou Reed to Ben Kweller to Jenny Lewis to Britt Daniel of Spoon to Ron Sexsmith to Norah Jones. Each show culminated with a rollicking rendition of “Road To Joy” and the night I was there it featured Rawlings smashing a toy piano as everything seemed to fall apart around him.
The Radio City show in the late fall of 2007 featured support from Thurston Moore and the Felice Brothers, but the real kicker was the greatest hits set and an encore rendition of “Lua” that essentially catapulted that song, in my mind at least, into the pantheon of great New York City tunes.
By the time we got to the end of the decade, Conor was touring as something of a solo artist, with the roots rock “Mystic Valley Band” that he assembled down in Mexico to record his self-titled debut for Merge. It was a fresh new experience for anyone who had seen Bright Eyes. Gone were the screaming girls and, it seemed, the “new Dylan, I am waiting with baited breath for the next word to come out of his mouth” anxiety of earlier performances. Instead, Conor was having fun, cranking up his songs and generally killing it, once again at the best venue in New York, The Bowery Ballroom.
And in the summer of 2009, he played Battery Park on the Fourth of July and, as he did at Radio City, closed with a scathing “patriotic” song, called “Roosevelt Room”, a fitting end to the show and the decade.