Bright Eyes tears heart out in NYC

According to those in the know, the Strokes have saved rock; as they stormed forth waving their greasy and artfully slashed banner, the youth of a nation cast aside Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears and followed suit. Subsequently, Hot Topic wasted no time in stocking white belts and seven inch vinyl for the junior scene-ster with allowance to burn. Gangsta rap bragged about diamonds and cars, and R. Kelly crooned “you remind me of my Jeep.” All this asks: if jubilant late-’60s guitar is back in the top 40, where does this leave the prototypical love song?

Enter emo, hipster rock’s loser best friend. I mean “loser” in the best possible way, of course: the kind of cute, kind of nerdy guy with the sweater and the glasses who’ll sit quietly and hold your hand at a party while that bastard rock ’n roll is snorting coke off of your best friend’s nether regions in the bathroom. Emo bands, for the most part, write heartfelt confessionals lamenting the state of love and the abstract unfairness of it all. While these bands are a dime a dozen these days, no one does it better than Bright Eyes.

Bright Eyes is the vehicle of Omaha, Neb. native Conor Oberst. Oberst, a singer-songwriter whose first records were produced in his bedroom, has gained steadily increasing fame with four full-length records and several EPs on Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records. With the influx of guitar in today’s charts, and a new album that deftly distills a mixture of political hopelessness and old-fashioned angst, Bright Eyes seems poised to explode.

Excitement threatened to boil over at Oberst’s Sept. 20 concert at New York City’s Irving Plaza. The show was sold out and standing room only, with fans arriving well in advance of the 8 p.m. start time in order to appropriately drape themselves across the front of the stage. The crowd in attendance was significantly younger than at previous Bright Eyes shows, and as the hour grew later with no sign of things getting underway, cell phones were brandished and parents called.

The non-minors in the crowd couldn’t help but smirk as the audience collectively begged for a curfew extension. Pretense and ageism, however, were cast aside as the lights finally dimmed. Members of Oberst’s band demonstrated their own songwriting talents as opening acts, and the man himself stepped in to provide bass or backup vocals, whetting the audience’s appetites.

At last, the lights dimmed one final time as Oberst and his band took the stage, bathed in color. They launched into “On a String” to begin a set of almost exclusively new material. Oberst is obviously proud of the tracks on “Lifted. . .or, The Story is in the Soil,” which debuted Aug. 14. They represent a thematic shift from the bleeding-heart anthems so prevalent on earlier records, particularly the acclaimed 2001 effort, “Fevers and Mirrors.”

Oberst seems to have found a political consciousness, lamenting oil money and “cowboy presidents,” infusing potentially hackneyed post-9/11 songs with his own brand of venom. The audience at Irving Plaza was spared none of this. As Conor remarked before one song, “This is about the end of the world, which we’ll be seeing very soon.” He went on to improvise a lyric, singing acidly that “God saves Texas family fortunes.”

For all Oberst’s highly personal lyrics, Bright Eyes’ stage presence is surprisingly large. The band consists of a number of very talented musicians, many of whom are women, adept at multiple instruments. Some songs raised the numbers onstage to ten or fifteen, resulting in sing-alongs that captured the new album’s relaxed feel. After an amazing, full-strength rendition of “Let’s Not Sh*t Ourselves (To Love and to be Loved),” possibly the most stirring track on the album, Oberst and company left the stage only to return moments later with a five-song encore of all new material.

Responding to requests for various older songs, Oberst made a bold statement: “I know you want the old stuff, but this is better.” Oberst seems intent on making the move from confessional to social commentary, a bold step for an artist who screams his sorrows into a crowd and is rewarded by a sixteen-year-old’s cheap bouquet. With luck, Oberst’s fans will mature along with him and let this obvious talent break free from the shackles of emo.