- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

Was the fragile, young, flop-haired singer-songwriter at the 9:30 Club Saturday night the new voice of a generation? The sold-out crowd of Conorians — aka, the devotees of Bright Eyes prodigy Conor Oberst — sure thought so.

And with lubricative help from between-song beers, Mr. Oberst was inclined to agree. “I’ll sing this extra loud; maybe they’ll hear it across town,” he said, introducing a new song called, pointedly, “When the President Talks to God.”

A sneering finger-wagger in the style of Bob Dylan classics such as “Masters of War” and “It’ s Alright, Ma (I’ m Only Bleeding),” it had the bite, but lacked the density, of Mr. Dylan’s protest poems. “When the president talks to God/Are the conversations brief or long? Does he ask to rape our women’s rights/and to send poor farm kids off to die?”

Mr. Dylan didn’t turn to preaching until much later in life than Mr. Oberst’ s 24 years; even then, it was a temporary fixation. Mr. Oberst has already worked up a full head of earnestness, having toured swing states with his pol-pals Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe last year.

Another reason to deem this Omaha, Neb., lad precocious, not to say overripe.

In his folky tirade Saturday, Mr. Oberst suspected Dubya of exaggerating his Texan drawl. Kettle, meet Conor Oberst, who affects the wounded quiver of Cure frontman Robert Smith.

So young, so much about which to be disaffected: The bonehead was re-elected; we’ re all going to die someday; I need a girlfriend; I took drugs all night; I can’t get my bangs to fall right.

Mr. Oberst manages to press every lever capable of zapping the patience of anyone who has reached the stage of adulthood that requires a steady job and a sense of realism. Yet he can be riveting in those genuine moments of vulnerability and wisdom beyond his years.

Saturday’s 90-minute gig was a near exclusive spotlight on “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning,” the better, more traditional of two Bright Eyes albums released last week. (The other, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn,” experiments with electronic beats and samples.) Mr. Oberst, who can ululate with the best of the emo posse, brought with him a full band — including the pivotal Mike Mogis on pedal-steel guitar plus a force-fitted trumpeter — but quiet directness suited him better.

His solo turn on “Lua,” a tale of dissolution that seems to take place in an actor’s fancy New York loft, was the knockout of the evening — no bells and whistles, just an acoustic guitar, a relaxed melody and wordplay that tingled with invention: “I know you have a heavy heart/I can feel it when we kiss/So many men much stronger than me/have thrown their backs out trying to lift it.”

This was far cooler than the crash-and-burn cacophony that ended the night, the pompous punk tune “Road to Joy,” in which Mr. Oberst commands “the boys” (and girl, bassist Stephanie Drootin) to “C’mon, make some noise.”

Whether or not he’ s a new Dylan (Let’s wait ‘til he’ s 30, shall we? ) Mr. Oberst, a cross looks-wise between actors Tobey Maguire and Crispin Glover, has alighted on something at least Dylanesque: a combination of Midwestern innocence and city-slicker sophistication.

A line in the elegiac “Land Locked Blues” — Emmylou Harris’ harmony vocals on “Morning” were sorely missed Saturday — had Mr. Oberst “balancing history books on to my head.” He may even have cracked one of those books.

Lucky for him, Mr. Oberst needn’t worry about being smarter than his fans. His unguarded emotiveness is what hooks them.

That he can dazzle them with language is merely a bonus.

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