My video Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst), "One for You, One for Me", Oakland, Apr 12, 2011
My video: Bright Eyes, "Shell Games", Oakland, Apr 12, 2011
My video: Bright Eyes: Conor Oberst testifies on Politics, Bradley Manning, Gitmo...
(Fox Theater, Oakland, California, Apr 12, 2011)
I listened a little to early Bright Eyes after being impressed seeing him play. Hard to recall now but at that time, criticism of W in the years following 9/11 was few and far between. Perhaps you'll recall The Dixie Chicks, getting death threats and banned from radio stations for saying on stage in England, just before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that "we don't want this war, this violence"... and that they were "ashamed" that W was from their home state of Texas. (Their supposed offense was not only exercising their free speech to oppose war but doing it "on foreign soil" (no free speech if the majority disagrees? no free speech overseas?), as if it were treason or something - a capital offense... the real traitors, of course, were the war profiteers like Blackwater, the war criminals exposed by Wikileaks whistleblower Bradley Manning (given a shout out last night from the stage by Conor who said he "should be given a fucking parade" instead of being tortured), and the media/public who sat there, their tongues frozen by fear and 9/11, who said ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for years against this war.... which is still fucking going on!
Thank God (or whoever) for artists like Conor Oberst who speak truth with passion. That what artists are for - to challenge us, to think outside the box, to destroy the box, to dream...
I didn't listen a whole lot to the earlier Bright Eyes stuff, but I really got into the Americana "Mystic Valley Band" stuff (some of which was written/recorded in the magical town of Tepoztlan, Mexico), seeing them perform those songs at Coachella 2009, LA's Echoplex, and San Francisco's Mezzanine. It's unfortunate that Conor appears to have felt limited by the Americana thing with the Mystic Valley Band, as those songs are so good, and ran the gamut from accoustic folk to straight-out barn burner rock n roll (not to mention crack players such as guitarist Taylor Hollingsworth, who contributed the rocker "Air Mattress" to the "Outer South" album).... Then there was The Monsters of Folk, who released an album and toured in 2009. The "supergroup" consisted of Conor and pals Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and M. Ward (solo and She & Him)(oops! and also Bright Eyes' Mike Mogis). They played the Fox in Oakland and people who weren't previously impressed by Jim James' work with My Morning Jacket (or his excellent "Yim Yames" Tribute to George Harrison) found themselves frozen between breaths, stunned by his angelic voice. M. Ward is, of course, a genius and wonderful.... (Jake from Vacaville agreed with me last night that She & Him is "too much She and not enough Him".... I mean, we love Zooey Deschanel.. she's cute, a good actress, good voice, seems like a nice person.... but Matt Ward is one of the finest singer/songwriter/guitarists around, it's a WASTE of his talent for him to be in She & Him where it's 90% She and 10% Him..... How 'bout a 50-50 split? Or just Matt solo? Insert obligatory discussion here about actresses who think they also need to be singers....)
So anyway, 'Monsters of Folk" and "Conor Oberst" seem to be on the shelf at the moment while "Bright Eyes" soars.... I didn't expect to hear any "Monsters" or "Mystic Valley" songs last night and I didn't (except in the car on the way there). But I was a little surprised there were so many early Bright Eyes songs trotted out last night.... to the delight of long-time fans (many of them female), who sang along with every word, but meaning little to people unfamiliar with that material (like me). (Conor turned 31 recently, but probably still gets carded for alcohol and maybe even cigarettes...). The 7-piece band (two percussionists, a horn player, keys, guitar, bass, and Conor on voice, guitar, and keys) was excellent, and the video projections behind the band were cool. The new songs from "The People's Key" worked well, but I was disappointed that we didn't get "Haile Selassie", perhaps the best (and most accessible) song on the album, which is certainly high energy enough for a rowsing live performance. But we did get great versions of "Shell Games" and "One for You, One for Me". As I was filming "Shell Games" (the first song released from "The People's Key" and one of its best songs), I thought, "Wow! this is terrible staging! Visually, this is awful! Why do bands try to 'bury' their single? Why not highlight it?" He was hiding, hunched over behind the keyboards. facing stage left (i.e. most people in the crowd got a side view). Why not have the keys set up so he could face the audience? But all concerns were obsolete as soon as he left the keys, grabbed a mike, and finished the song with a passionate tromp around the stage. I think I remember some of the shows I saw in 2004 where he basically just stood there with a guitar and sang. Conor's obviously grown as a performer and become much more confident on stage. He was all over the place, switching between acoustic and electric guitar, keyboards, jumping up on the drum riser, lifting his guitar high up in the air (and smashing it at the end), dancing, twirling, (sorry for the cliche) like a possessed dervish, possessed by his vision, passion, politics, and burgeoning spiritually (as evidenced by the sound samples on the record and broadcast at the beginning and end of the show by Conor's wacky spacey cosmic friend, street philosopher Denny Brewer).
That's what artists are for - to dream for us and reflect our dreams, inspire new dreams, to push the envelope on culture, politics, and spirituality.
The Fox was our church for a few minutes last night, and we were called to testify and hear Conor testify about a new world vision.
Conor's dream seems to be a world where the rich and corrupt don't get away with murder, where the poor get a shot instead of getting shot, and where community and compassion trumps greed and fear. He created community in that room last night. Hundreds of strangers in the dark, singing along, dreaming together, and they all left with a smile....
"Now you are, how you were, when you were.... Real....."