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Bright Eyes is wide awake at night with more room to grow

Sanders Theater, Cambridge, Mass., January 24, 2005

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Conor Oberst certainly is on a hot streak. The Omaha wunderkind has been heaped with praise for years, and he's just shy of 24.

And that praise is likely to continue with the release of two separate albums Tuesday, the country flavored "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and its rock counterpart "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn."

Bright Eyes, really Oberst and six sidekicks, now are touring in support of "Wide Awake."

Is Oberst the indie rock, alternative icon mantle that seems to have been thrust upon him?

The answer is yes and no based on his 80-minute outing before a sold-out crowd.

To the positive, Oberst, a lithe figure with hair often covering his face, certainly has a lot of intensity about him and his songs. That was never more clear with his anti-President Bush diatribe "When the President Talks to God," which he spewed out with more emotion than any other during the set lyrics like:

when the president talks to god
are the conversations brief or long?
does he ask to rape our womens' rights
or to send poor farm kids off to die?
will the president recommend an oil hike"

Back in October, Oberst toured with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and REM in the effort to defeat the president.

And he certainly has a slew of good, solid songs from the new disc to trot out. Standouts included "Train Under Water" and "Land Locked Blues."

To his credit, Oberst mixed his vocals up very high, meaning he could be easily heard above the music in the show taped for a possible DVD.

Oberst seems to most recall Robert Smith of The Cure, probably not a bad comparison lyrically either considering the trials and tribulations Oberst covers in his meaty lyrics.

Often playing acoustic guitar, the songs veered between country stylings and more of a hard-edged folk sound with a good amount of pedal steel courtesy of Mike Mogis, who co-produced the new discs. Lots of nice trumpet playing from Nate Walcott added an unusual mix to the proceedings.

While competent, the band didn't sound particularly special or with a great deal of personality and neither did Oberst's guitar playing. Competent, but never very engaging or ear opening.

And personality or lack thereof is perhaps Oberst's biggest area for growth. He rarely spoke, interacted or said anything of substance or with much of a sense of humor except that playing the Harvard University venue was "the only way I would've gotten in here," although that was such an obvious joke to be made.

The result was a few calls from the audience la "We love you Conor" and watching Oberst drink a prestigious amount of water and some other drink throughout the set. And the audience never much went beyond the polite applause for a few seconds except at the beginning and towards the end. To the audience's defense, it is not so easy listening to a bunch of new songs - Oberst played almost the entire new album - for the first time.

Oberst clearly is on the way up - he's certainly on the right road musically and emotionally especially with "Wide Awake," but it would be great if on the path, he heats up stage presence wise.