Jim James solo live at Vic Theatre, Chicago, IL, February 21, 2004

"An evening of solo & collaborative performances featuring
 Bright Eyes, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) & M. Ward"

Chicago Sun-Times

Oberst succeeds with sincerity under gaze of adoring crowd

February 23, 2004


A decade ago, indie rock was ruled by slackers. They prized cynicism, apathy and ironic detachment. It was cool not to care.

A decade ago, Conor Oberst released his first album. He was 14 years old, recording in his Omaha bedroom, and probably didn't envision what he'd soon become: a famously prolific songwriter, a scene catalyst and label maven, and an unlikely heartthrob.

Now emo fills arenas and everyone posts their deepest secrets to a blog. In a world where nothing succeeds like sincerity, Oberst -- with a revolving cast of collaborators known as Bright Eyes -- sets the hyper-confessional standard and draws a worshipful throng.

That dewy-eyed legion was out in force Saturday, when Oberst topped a collaborative triple bill at the Vic. Including songwriters Jim James of the reverb-loving redneck hippies My Morning Jacket and the John Fahey disciple M. Ward, the show could have been dubbed the Earnest & Young Revue.

Oberst was the most earnest. His angular arms poked out from a professorial brown sweater and flailed at his guitar. Hollow-eyed under a dark rag of hair, he hunched over the microphone, pouring out words poetic or offhand. He quavered, spat or simply howled -- the latter most jarringly in "Waste of Paint," a spasm of self-doubt drawn from the most recent Bright Eyes disc, "Lifted."

The style is polarizing, but his talent is unquestionable. His songs covered the usual subjects in unusual ways; they rarely hewed to verse-chorus convention and often cast characters, like the doomed lovers of "Lua," in unflattering but honest light. Nor did he spare himself, railing archly against "amateur orators" who "detail [their] pain in some standard refrain."

Judging by the setlist, Oberst's creative faucet is still a gusher. Several songs he played Saturday -- sometimes solo, often with Ward, James and sideman Mike Mogis all swapping guitars -- are as yet unreleased. And although Oberst basked in flashbulbs for much of his set, he wasn't shy about sharing the spotlight. The show was free-flowing, with Ward and then James each playing a half-hour's worth of their own material and everyone else lending a hand.

Ward's portion was captivating. His voice ranged from sandpaper growl to cool croon, while his dazzling display of fingerstyle guitar made the lone instrument sound like three. He quoted Gershwin, covered David Bowie and Daniel Johnston, and repeatedly raised the ghost of the late friend who inspired his well-loved but little-heard '03 release "Transfiguration of Vincent."

That was a tough act for James to follow, and his material --stripped of the Crazy Horse-in-an-echo-chamber clangor of My Morning Jacket -- came off plain in comparison. But his high, drawling voice underlined the eerie loneliness of songs like "The Bear" and did justice to the Willie Nelson weeper "Always on My Mind."

The end, an encore cover of "Girl From the North Country," couldn't have been more apt. Bob Dylan, after all, was the original earnest young troubadour -- well before anyone onstage Saturday was born.

Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago free-lance writer.




My Morning Jacket Live 2004