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Coachella 2011: Bright Eyes wide shut

April 17, 2011 | 10:22 am


For much of his Saturday night sundown set at Coachella, Conor Oberst of the seminal indie rock band Bright Eyes sang with his eyes shut. It wasn't due to relaxation though -- his face was taut, almost contorted -- and occasionally his lids would flutter, revealing his eyes partially rolled back into his head.

The result was feral and electric, but only slightly so. And that was too bad, because Oberst, a young man of 31, was once touted as the musical prophet of his generation. In 2002, when he was just 22, the New York Times published a story headlined "The Ballad of Conor Oberst" that said, "he has critics buzzing that he might be the next Bob Dylan."

Images from the 2011 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival

And Oberst did take stabs at protest music over the years, most notably with a 2005 song called "When the President Talks to God," which was an overt criticism of George W. Bush. But mostly he began to occupy a safe, indie rock sweet spot that satiated his fans without pushing socio-political boundaries.

In 2011 on the main stage at Coachella, Oberst, who has been playing with Bright Eyes for nearly 13 years, came across as a deeply talented, well-seasoned musician a decade older than he really is. And that's not really his fault. Like a modern-day Rimbaud, Oberst was considered a teen genius. And genius has a shelf life when what once felt cutting-edge becomes rote.

So it was with Bright Eyes at Coachella as the band that pioneered a tender strain of musically ambitious, deeply literate and achingly hopeful indie rock relaxed into routine. And the sound that once embodied the future of music became a polished derivative of itself.

Photos: Panoramas of Coachella 2011

That's not to say that Oberst's easy stage banter -- filled with earnest descriptions of what each song was about -- wasn't charming, or that he did not deliver a performance filled with soul and skill. Just that the raw hunger and lonely post-adolescent angst that captivated his early audiences was gone, replaced by a professional frontman to whom massive festivals were nothing new.

Only when he sang the darkly tragic 2002 single, "Lover I Don't Have to Love," did a flash of the haunting boy-prophet emerge.

"I got a hunger and I can't seem to get full, I need some meaning I can memorize, the kind I have always seems to slip my mind ... But life's no storybook, love's an excuse to get hurt."

When he finished he opened his eyes, taking in the crowd, and said, "It's so nice to see you all out there together. You look so beautiful."

"You're fine, Conor!" screamed a drunk girl nearby. And the moment was lost.


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-- Jessica Gelt

Photo: Conor Oberst performs with Bright Eyes on Saturday. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angleles Times