BRIGHT EYES with COCOROSIE and TILLY & THE WALL at the Phoenix, January 21. Tickets: $22.50. Attendance: sold out. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
You've gotta be suspicious when media outlets are falling all over themselves in a mad rush to label a musician the voice of his generation.
Everyone's trying to figure out whether Conor "Bright Eyes" Oberst is the PlayStation generation's Dylan or Springsteen. It's like nobody under 25's ever written a politically informed song before.
But the fact remains that last Friday evening the front half of the Phoenix - where the kids were kept cordoned off - spilled over with rapt all-agers in hoodies and backpacks, while the back area by the bar was a veritable wasteland.
Oberst's won praise for helping establish a thriving indie scene in his hometown of Omaha, which, judging from openers (and labelmates) Tilly & the Wall , is similar to a performing arts summer camp.
The adorable Tillies took the stage with a handclap-chant combo reminiscent of the cheer routines in Bring It On before launching into their ragged folkie singalongs.
Between their slightly off-key harmonies, the banging on tin trays and the wide-eyed earnestness of Oberst doppelgänger singer/guitarist Derek Pressnall 's howls - not to mention the running gimmick of a tap dancer-as-percussionist, performed with panache by Jaime Williams - the shtick had the ambitious but off-kilter effect of a campfire talent show. The kids loved it, though.
Paris-by-way-of-Brooklyn sister act CocoRosie , who brought along a beatboxing rapper for the ride, were more underwhelming. What works well on disc - their spooky atmospherics, found-sound effects and Bianca Casady 's creaky blues-witch crooning - failed to register onstage, possibly because the duo were weirdly subdued.
Oberst was another story.
Sure, the guy's a great songwriter. Although his lyrics can err on the side of overwrought diary entries - as in Lua's anguished scribblings about addicts in love - they work in that Sunny Day Real Estate, here's-my-heart-on-a-platter way. Angsty youths relate cuz he really feels their pain. And you hate to love Oberst because of that, but you do. You just have to get over the fact that his raw moaning can bruise your ears.
Part of his irritating charm is that he's self-aware enough to address his vocal impotence, so when he croaked out the line, "I could've been a famous singer if I had someone else's voice," in the new ramblin' country tune Road To Joy, the crowd went nuts.
But the thing that sets Oberst apart from the sickening likes of Dashboard Confessional and other emo-come-latelies is that, even at his most tormented, you believe the dude's sincere. And when he plays to his, uh, weaknesses, his act can be powerful.
His band was great - Mike Mogis 's pedal steel work was fantastic - but the best moment of Bright Eyes' set occurred when the frontman stood solo in the spotlight and bashed out the hiccupping, bluesy chords of live staple When The President Talks To God. The kids may not have understood his anti-Bush preamble, but by the time Oberst finished shouting, "When he kneels down in his presidential bed, does he ever smell his own bullshit?" judging from the crowd response, you might've thought you were listening to the voice of a generation.
If only that voice sounded better.