A decade into his performing career, improbably prolific Omaha-based singer-songwriter Conor Oberst has been anointed this season’s “it” boy — which may or may not be a step up from the “new Dylan” tag hung on him by pundits a few years back. On the first night of a three-show Gotham stint, the 24-year-old proved that sometimes, it’s safe to believe the hype.
Opening with a hootenanny-worthy rendition of “The Bottom of Everything,” Oberst and company set a tone that was at once intimate and grand — the former mood set by the singer’s unshakable directness, the latter by the ebb and flow of seven in-sync instrumentalists.
Much of the 80-minute set’s material was culled from “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” one of two Bright Eyes discs that the Saddle Creek label issued on Tuesday. (Oberst is said to be planning a separate tour in support of the other, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.”) Even so, aud seemed familiar with every nuance of songs like the waltz-time lament “We Are Nowhere and It Is Now,” judging by the sing-along level.
Oberst, known to be somewhat reticent onstage, seemed a bit uneasy about that degree of attention — not to mention the between-song whoops of love and lust sent stageward. He eventually grew comfortable enough — aided by a couple of Big Gulp-sized screwdrivers — to nearly strut during the Johnny Cash-styled “Another Travelin’ Song.”
More striking, however, were Oberst’s forays into introspection — the wispy folk allegory “Everything Must Go” and the quavery “Method Acting,” for instance. But while those songs, like much of the set, focused on Bright Eyes’ fragility, Oberst also gave voice to plenty of politi-cal pointedness, most notably on the solo acoustic “When the President Talks to God” (which asks, among other things, “Does he fake that drawl or merely nod?”).
As he’s grown as a songwriter, Oberst has shed most of his overly confessional tendencies, but not his willingness to go out on a lyrical limb. His may not be the voice of a generation, but he cuts through the dull chatter of pop culture like a stiletto.
Bright Eyes performs at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles Feb. 12-14.