Live: Bright Eyes at Hollywood Forever Cemetery
A few thousand sensitive millenials who survived their quarter-life crises thanks to Conor Oberst's music felt the icy breath of the Reaper on Friday night. Not because Oberst's band Bright Eyes played its enjoyably rambling two-hour set among the graves of the sold-out Hollywood Forever Cemetery. But because the ink-haired Rimbaud of indie rock reminded everyone that he's seen the far side of 30.
"The world's got me dizzy again," he sang on the sprawling folk ballad "Landlocked Blues," one of his finest songwriting efforts in a career spanning half his life. "You'd think after growing so old, I'd get used to the spin."
Bright Eyes' first recorded version of the tune, from 2003, pegged his age at 22. In its amended version Friday, for an audience not quite as rail-thin and messily coiffed as it used to be, the lyric was devastating enough to re-up an adolescent Zoloft prescription.
But it was also a reminder that, in ways few singer-songwriters have matched over the last decade, Oberst's audience has grown up alongside the 31-year-old. When overtaken by a teenage sex panic, they had the goth-folk stalkers' suites of "Fevers & Mirrors" in 2000. When discovering hard drugs and an indeterminate post-grad future, there was Oberst's reputation-making album "Lifted" in 2002. And when they tasted futility as their country marched in yet another war, there was 2005's widely lauded "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning."
His Friday set was a loose and self-aware recap of just how long he's articulated the joys, pains, tantrums and awakenings of a certain swath of rock fans.
Bright Eyes, now officially a trio with producer Mike Mogis and arranger Nate Walcott, released a new album, "The People's Key,” this year. It was kind of a sidestep for Oberst, drawing from a jumble of genres and an unexpectedly earnest interest in, of all things, Rastafarianism.
On Friday, he wisely struck to its highlights like "Jejune Stars," which recalled his punky Desaparecidos project. The electro-poppy "Shell Games" and chilling piano suite "Ladder Song" held up with his best; the synth-sodden “Approximate Sunlight” didn't.
But most of the set went deep to tell a story of a songwriter once pegged as a New Dylan growing into his own man. The regal "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)," set during 2003's anti-Iraq war marches in New York, quietly reminded that adventure is eight years and counting, and its un-showy lyrical detail and lonely horns depicted that frustration and helplessness to audience members too young for the years of yellowcake and "smoking guns." On 2002’s "Lover I Don’t Have To Love," Oberst used a minor-key electric piano riff to dramatize a young man empowered by fame, money and the best boy-bangs in music wreaking havoc on young women (and himself) in the tour van.
Bright Eyes' 2005 electronics-focused album "Digital Ash In A Digital Urn" proved resilient. Cuts like the hookup-dazed "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" won big receptions, as did fan favorite "The Calendar Hung Itself," a lone poison-pen gesture to his teenage catalog that gave context to his growth as a songwriter.
Oberst's career spans dozens of styles and guest players, and it's to Mogis' and Walcott's credit that they kept the band's hands on the wheel with inventive, coherent arrangements. Passing time and droll humor are also a good new look for Oberst, like when he addressed Hollywood Forever's permanent residents: "How exciting to have free entertainment after you're dead. Most cemeteries just get a guy with a six-pack singing 'Dust in the Wind.' "
For the former heartsick teenagers who found themselves inching closer to the grave on Friday, it was nice to have a familiar guide onstage.
-- August Brown
Photo: Bright Eyes performing Friday at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Credit: Christina House / For The Times