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The spotlight finds a searching soul

With his probing songs, Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst is making waves in indie rock. But it's not fame's glare he's after, it's enlightenment in the world offstage.

November 10, 2002|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

It's midway through Bright Eyes' concert at the Henry Fonda Theatre, and the group's 14 musicians have stopped their percussive, orchestral attack, leaving singer Conor Oberst alone at the center of the stage

The crowd, buzzing from the intoxicating spell the group has cast for the past half-hour, becomes quiet as Oberst plucks a descending modal scale on his guitar, like something drawn from a haunted Appalachian homestead. Whatever it is, it sounds serious.

"Is it true what I heard about the son of God? Did he come to save? Did he come at all?" Oberst's voice sneers and clenches in the silence, a trembling thing groping for meaning at the center of a void. The verses keep coming, a rolling, tumbling litany in the manner of Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."

"They say they don't know when but a day is gonna come, when there won't be a moon and there won't be a sun." A tense pause. "It will all go black. It will all go back to the way it was before."

The audience seems transfixed, and raises a cheer when Oberst adds a line that isn't on the 6 1/2-minute recording, one about a nation waging war for oil profits. Halfway across the song's bridge, Oberst breaks into a full scream. "Could you please start explaining? You know, I need some understanding!" Several drummers begin pounding as strings and horns gather in a cathartic crescendo.

You say you're looking for a new star? The people at the Fonda sure think they have one. As for Oberst, well, he's not so sure.

On the afternoon of the performance, members of the Bright Eyes touring party drift in and out of the lobby of their Hollywood hotel.

"Waiting for the big man? I mean the little man?"

Matt Focht, one of the group's drummers, winks and smiles as he passes through, suggesting that the little man's disappearing act is nothing new.

Finally the front doors slide open and in walks Oberst, an hour late for an interview. He explains sheepishly that he had trouble finding his way here after an overnight visit with his friends in the L.A. band Rilo Kiley. Waiting for the elevator, the slightly built musician looks even younger than his 22 years. His black hair and dark eyes contrast strikingly with his pale skin, giving him a winsome appeal reminiscent of "Malcolm in the Middle's" Frankie Muniz.

These days, though, it's more a case of Conor at the controls. After quietly building a reputation in the breadbasket of the U.S. indie-rock world, the Omaha native has leaped into major-league contention this year with two ignore-at-your-own-peril albums: "Read Music/Speak Spanish" by his on-the-side rock band Desaparecidos, and a magnum opus by Bright Eyes called "Lifted ... or the Story Is in the Soul Keep Your Ear to the Ground," both on Omaha's thriving independent label Saddle Creek.

There's a wide sonic spectrum in "Lifted," but essentially it frames Oberst's folk-pop songwriting in boldly orchestral structures built on a foundation of marching-band snares and bass drums.

Oberst had drawn a fair degree of attention among serious pop

followers for the records he released under the Bright Eyes name. Much of the fascination stemmed from the fact that he started writing and recording his introspective "bedroom pop" when he was 13.

But with "Lifted," the door at which Oberst had been gently knocking for nearly a decade suddenly flew open and the rave reviews spilled in, along the lines of Blender magazine's ecstatic proclamation, "The Ritalin generation may have found its Bob Dylan."

Up in his room, Oberst settles down at the head of one of the two beds, but a dentist's chair might be a better choice of furniture for the interview. He answers questions squarely and thoroughly, but without much animation, elaboration or eye contact, and he hunches his body tightly, as if trying to curl into a ball.

"He doesn't really enjoy [interviews], it's not the most fun he has," says his longtime friend Robb Nensel, who runs Saddle Creek. "But I think he recognizes that it allows him to be a creative person and not have to work another job."

The interview requests and other demands have picked up since "Lifted" came out in August, but Oberst is clinging tightly to his small-city, indie-rock roots.

"As far as fame or something, I don't know, it's not something I would ever consider how to get more of," he says, somewhere between a whisper and a mumble.

The title of "Lifted" suggests transcendence, and while the topics range from boy-girl vignettes to knotty philosophical and theological head-scratching, Oberst continually returns to a theme summarized in the lines "All I know is I feel better when I sing / Burdens are lifted from me."

"A big part of it was just a celebration of playing music as a physical thing," he says of the album. "It's something that is needed by people -- at least it is for me and my friends. But I don't know" -- Oberst's voice softens as he tries to surround the concept.

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