An Evening of Solo and Collaborative Performances with Bright Eyes, Jim James, and M. Ward
Loew’s Theatre, Jersey City, February 24, 2004
The idea looked good on paper.
Bright Eyes, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and M. Ward have hit the road with their iconic indie-rock melding of the minds. Conor Oberst, the face of Bright Eyes and oft-argued about troubadour, headlined the show at the grand Loew’s Theatre—a fully restored theatre from the 1920s that was holding its inaugural event on this night. Much of my criticism of the show, however, falls on Oberst’s shoulders. For one, although I’ve never been one to only want to hear the “hits,” the Omaha wunderkind only played two tracks from Lifted, his most popular and undoubtedly best album. “Waste of Paint” came at approximately the halfway point of Oberst’s set and was a shot in the arm for what had been a slow, meandering selection of older tracks. Its arrival was greeted warmly, receiving the biggest ovation of the night from a crowd seemingly screaming for more tracks from Lifted.
What turns most Bright Eyes detractors away is exactly what led to his failure on this night—Oberst writes wordy songs that use obscure metaphors and references to mask his lyrics’ true intent. His lyrics don’t fit into any sort of rhythm, which although charming on record, sounded clumsy live. These flaws were accentuated by the show’s format. All three performers played solo sets, collaborating on certain tracks through each individual’s set and then again for a mutual set at the end. Ward, James, and Oberst performed in a revolving-door style, overlapping their sets so the following act would appear a couple of songs early to ease the previous act off stage. Oberst, who appeared mostly with only an acoustic guitar, dragged his songs through awkward, loping paces and stumbled through their most important moments. This uninspired performance did nothing to mask the shortcomings of his early work, his most cringe-worthy lyrics rang crystal-clear (“Now you’re a basketball / The boys all pass you around / And bounce you off the ground / And dribble you / And then all share high-fives”), hanging amidst the intimate crowd of hipsters and drawing more than a few chuckles from people embarrassed on Oberst’s behalf. A song only introduced as “new” displayed an even more delicate (and still promising) side of Bright Eyes, but provided one of very few highlights for what could have been a much more memorable performance.
M. Ward took stage first and tip-toed through an impressive collection of subdued yet rootsy country and blues-inflected songs, his tenor melting over impressive arrangements and wistful guitar passages. Ward’s voice had Jeff Buckley’s ghost all over it, sounding cloned from the “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” demos. An instrumental interpretation of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody of Blue” displayed an interesting blend of finger-picking and controlled loops, the interlocking melodies drawing an image of at least five separate guitars entirely created by one. Ward slowly burned his way through each selection with care and intensity alike and did a fine job supporting his, as Oberst himself described, “three fucking amazing albums.”
Jim James proved to be the night’s brightest star, his soaring voice finding a soul mate within the reverb-friendly walls of the theatre. Between songs spanning My Morning Jacket’s stellar catalogue, James took advantage of the show’s particularly intimate atmosphere, chatting with the crowd and attempting to cut through the palpable sense of melancholy with a few lighthearted jokes. James’ greatest asset is surely his voice, and on this night the words leapt from his mouth and were lifted higher beyond James’ control and into another, seemingly inhuman register. His last song, It Still Moves‘ starry “Golden,” found M. Ward and Oberst joining James to recreate the wilting lead melody.
The story which overshadowed an otherwise enjoyable night, however, was Oberst’s disappointing nonchalance. It is possible, despite the presence of a strong new song, that Oberst only had one truly great album in him, and by avoiding it almost completely he automatically put the wrong foot forward—a shame considering the strength of ignored Lifted tracks “Bowl of Oranges,” “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves,” “From a Balance Beam,” and “Method Acting.” In fact, the most celebrated artist of the night came off as the most amateurish, easily mistakable for a coffee shop open-mic-night singer-songwriter. I understand that as an artist grows, past work serves as a growth chart, but for someone who has only recently emerged from his awkward phase it’d serve beneficial to not look back on those embarrassing yearbook photos just yet.
On a night that was supposed to celebrate a passion for music and camaraderie between three of the most respected musicians in indie rock, one that avoided higher-profile venues and Ticketmaster alliances for a more intimate aesthetic with a continuous flow of music and potential for interesting collaboration, Conor Oberst went through the motions. A nice gesture, to be sure, to offer a night devoid of frills and cut straight to what matters most. Except for one thing.
The guest of honor forgot to show up.