It was a perfect Grammy moment: On the night of the music biz kudocast, Bright Eyes singer Conor Oberst announced to the soldout Orpheum Theater that his band was about to perform live on the telecast. “Billy Joe from Green Day and I are even sporting the same eye makeup,” he said, before launching into a new song, “Carrot/Diamond/Jumpoff.” One thing: There were no cameras. There was no simulcast.
Of course there wasn’t: That would only disprove the theory that Grammy voters are out of touch, as Bright Eyes looks to be one of the most influential young bands of the decade. With the release of both “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” and “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” (both Saddle Creek) last month, Oberst has finally made good on the promise he’s shown for almost 10 years, recording songs that are at once intimate, personal, heartbreaking, poetic and reaffirming.
On this tour, Oberst is playing songs from the folk-tinged “Morning” (a tour later this year with labelmates the Faint will focus on “Digital” songs) and it’s clear he’s left his overly confessional past behind. Of the 15 songs played in a 90-minute set, none was from 2003’s “Lifted” or any of his early records.
Instead, the still unbelievably prolific Oberst and his band played most of “Morning” and a strong stable of new songs. The latter ranged from the disarming, angry political rant “When the President Talks to God” to the aforementioned organ drone “Carrot/Diamond/Jumpoff,” all played with the kind of maturity and disarming charisma that gives license to the Oberst-as-new-Dylan theory espoused by many critics.
That’s not the only icon Oberst brings to mind. Another — through his dark, music-as-lifestyle persona and his often fatalistic lyrics — is Kurt Cobain. In one of his best songs, the melancholy “Landlocked Blues,” Oberst claims, “I’m making a deal with the devils of fame/Sayin’ let me walk away, please.” As his star gets brighter, here’s hoping he can deal with his imminent stardom better than Cobain did.
Right now, there’s no young artist music needs more than Conor Oberst.