Jim James solo live at Loew's Jersey Theatre, Jersey City, NJ, February 24, 2004

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

The Star-Ledger

Bright sound: Restored movie palace proves perfect venue for Oberst

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Star-Ledger Staff

Casually dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, with the hood still covering his head, Conor Oberst looked like he wandered in from a touch football game when he took the stage at the Loew's Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, Tuesday night.

But soon, his voice filled the old, high-ceilinged theater -- which mainly presents movies, but could turn into an important concert venue -- as few voices of his generation can.

Oberst, 24, consistently struck raw nerves with his dark, introspective lyrics, and his singing was mixed so much louder than the instrumentation that every nuance was easily heard.

There was a restless, poetic, Dylanesque flow of images and ideas to most of his songs. "I know a girl who cries when she practices violin/'Cause each note sounds so pure, it just cuts into her/And then the melody comes pouring out her eyes/Now to me, everything else, it just sounds like a lie," he sang in "Going for the Gold."

Oberst often presents himself as a wounded soul, but there was flamboyant, larger-than-life drama in his delivery of songs like "Waste of Paint" and "Laura Laurent" (which ended with some intentionally grating sound effects). Rarely has one artist combined such carefully chosen words with such a reckless, theatrical delivery of them.

As usual, he was billed under the name Bright Eyes. The Omaha, Neb., native uses this name for all his musical projects, from solo shows to tours with large bands. At this show, Bright Eyes consisted only of Oberst and Mike Mogis, who played pedal-steel guitar and several other instruments. They were joined, occasionally, by Jim James (of the band My Morning Jacket) and M. Ward, singer-songwriters who were also on the bill.

Despite the presence of three distinct acts, the show offered one long set (two hours and 40 minutes), without momentum-killing breaks. Oberst, James and Ward all had solo numbers, but also played bass, keyboards and guitar for each other.

Oberst made his first appearance, for instance, in a secondary role, playing guitar and singing backing vocals for Ward. At various points in the show -- including the final encore, a cover of Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country" -- all four musicians performed together, forming a scruffy roots-rock band.

Performing their own songs, Ward and James also impressed.

Ward showcased his expert guitar picking as well as his clever songwriting. "He only sings when he's sad/And he's sad all the time/So he sings the whole night through/Yeah, he sings in the daytime too," he sang in "Vincent O'Brien."

James' high, lonesome voice was sometimes reminiscent of Neil Young -- Mogis' pedal-steel licks complemented the aching quality in his voice well. At some points in the show, though, James proved capable of belting out songs with near-operatic power.

Between songs, James took a moment to talk about the venue itself. "This place," he said, "is insane."

There is no venue in New Jersey like the Loew's. Sure, there are other old theaters. But none of them match the over-the-top lavishness of the Loew's, where every square inch of wall and ceiling space seems to be covered with a tapestry or carving or other ornate decoration of some kind.

The theater opened in 1929 and closed in 1986. Over the last decade, it has been renovated and reopened. There is still work to be done on some parts of the theater.

The first major concert at the "new" Loew's, a benefit headlined by Patti LaBelle, took place in January 2003. But Tuesday's show was the first promoted by Todd Abramson, owner of the Hoboken club Maxwell's. Abramson has expressed interest in promoting more shows there.

He must have been encouraged by Tuesday's show. It sold out, moving 1,500 tickets (once the renovation of the balcony is completed, the theater's capacity will double). The show ran smoothly, and the sound was crystal clear. Presenting a concert with a full rock band (including drums) might present a bigger acoustical challenge, but for this show, the venue was a perfect fit.

Copyright 2004 The Star-Ledger.

My Morning Jacket Live 2004