No one yelled “Judas” at Conor Oberst last Wednesday night at Town Hall, but the Bright Eyes frontman was definitely under assault. At any moment when he wasn’t hurling words at the room, Oberst’s fans were hurling words back at him—everything from “I love you, Conor!” to “Lick my balls.” Like the folk-music watchdogs who couldn’t hang with Bob Dylan’s electric guitar, these young people—and nearly every seat was filled by someone who likely became an underage drinker right around the time the 24-year-old Oberst did—were figuring out how to accept their hero’s ascent to his current pop-cultural roost. He had been theirs; now his ass belonged to Wal-Mart.
Oberst hardly appeared up to the job. A small guy by any standards, he looked positively tiny onstage, even surrounded by six sympathetic bandmates; wracked by a cough that only increased his Dickensian street-urchin steez, he handled the glare by keeping his head down and his grip on a Rolling Rock. Except for when he sang. Then indie’s Little Man Tate focused all the misplaced energy in the room into a single beam of seething folk-rock intensity. Seriously: However powerful you think the songs are on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, they sound like demos compared to their wide-awaker live versions. It’s how you know Oberst has become a folk singer.
Which is why his love songs sort of sucked. All recycled twentysomething anxiety and plainly disingenuous self-loathing, they’re hard to take in a darkened bar, let alone in front of a bunch of immature guys who scarcely need the encouragement. But when Oberst sings about America now—about making love to a televised war and the president talking to God—he taps into something fierce and vital and true. At Town Hall he kept things at a steady boil until the end of his set, when catharsis finally came with a “Road to Joy” that sounded like “Paint It Black.” It’s the last thing the kid needs, but as he smashed his guitar it was impossible not to think about another sad-eyed lady of the lowlands: Kurt Cobain.