Last night at the Michigan Theater, Conor Oberst, the visionary behind the band Bright Eyes, appeared onstage with his head looking at the floor. He moved as modestly and quietly as an apparition, dressed in various shades of gray with black fingerless gloves he later shed from each hand. Notorious as a sensitive-but-aggressive emo heartthrob, his opening song is a shock — a country song. There were two guitars (acoustic and electric), bass, keyboards, dulcimer and pedal strings, and Oberst was singing about a highway.
This new sound is reminiscent of “Mermaid Avenue” by Billy Braggs and Wilco, or Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” The one aural giveaway that you’re not at the wrong venue is Oberst’s cold shudder of a voice. His charismatic intensity creates his own matchless and classic touch which others attempt to imitate. Behind his guitar he twitches and lurches back and forth, barely able to contain himself — a crazy young man breaking through his skin — and it is captivating.
The key to his performance was his versatility. During one song he sat on the chair behind the organ, knees to chest, swaying back and forth in self-inflicted agony. Then he rocked out on his knees. Next he stood alone on stage, cursing the president through clenched teeth (“When the president talks to God/ Does he fake that drawl or just nod/ Decides which weapons to conceal/ Decides which prisons should be filled”). Nonetheless, the music remained beautiful and multi-faceted, eerily connected. The glue is his attitude and imagery. In “Landlocked Blues” he sings, “And the moon’s laying low in the sky/ Forcing everything metal to shine/ And the sidewalk holds diamonds like a jewelry store case/ They argue ‘walk this way,’ no ‘walk this way.’ ”
The audience was varied as well. Jagged black bangs framed pale, stoic faces while rugged men in baseball caps yelling “yeah buddy!” sat next to curly-haired girls begging Conor to dance and marry them. But when Oberst played, wrapping himself in song, there was silence. He shook his head while juxtaposing love and destruction. The stories in his lyrics were compelling, delightfully addicting, and he ushers us into his crooked microcosm where kids play with guns and girls dream of waves. His anger and insecurity with the status quo, as blatant as it is, still maintains a certain mystique. And as he peered out at a full theater from behind his own jagged black hair and launched into another song, the audience watches as this young man is swept up in the moment, finally reaching his own escape.
While tuning his electric guitar, Oberst told the audience, “I have a friend who tells me, never walk out on a song. But, it’s OK to do on this song.” But who could? He listeners were captivated: Sitting in the palm of his hand; they were being led page by page through a journal inside his guitar. It is a sound that resonates, and the audience wants to know where it’s going, how it will change, how it ends and what begins next.