Conor Oberst is the king of depressive indie rock, specializing in poetic melancholia and bleak, brittle confessionals. And Friday night at DAR Constitution Hall, the twenty-something troubadour who records and performs under the nom de art Bright Eyes spent the majority of a 90-minute, 15-song set getting in touch with his inner Leonard Cohen by exploring the darker, more intimate corners of his catalogue.
In the concert-opening "Sunrise, Sunset," for instance, the guitar-slinging Oberst -- backed by six touring musicians -- sang in a frayed, tremulous voice: "For a sunrise or a sunset, you're manic or you're depressed / Will you ever feel okay?" And in the very next song, the almost psychotically titled "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will," he yearned for a lover to return, threatening: "If you don't, I'll start drinking like the way I drank before / And I just won't have a future anymore."
But Oberst's lyrical concerns aren't limited to gloomy personal issues. The Omaha-born artist, who performed on last year's Vote for Change tour, is also developing a powerful political voice, which he decided to exercise more than usual Friday, given Constitution Hall's proximity to the White House.
"I haven't played this song much lately because it started feeling like shooting fish in a barrel," Oberst said as he stood alone onstage at the beginning of the encore. But, he said, "I want to wake up the [expletive] who sleeps across the street." Thus Oberst began singing the virulent "When the President Talks to God," punctuating the caustic lyrics ("When the president talks to God / Does he ever think that maybe he's not?") by emphatically strumming his acoustic guitar.
For all the raw emotion Oberst summoned during his desolate, personal narratives, "When the President Talks to God" was his most impassioned performance of the show. Alas, the screed went unheard by its target, as President Bush was in Asia.
That didn't stop the singer-songwriter, dubbed "the indie rock Bob Dylan" by Rolling Stone, from delivering additional harangues to the White House. In introducing the last song of the evening, "Let's Not [Expletive] Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)," he declared forcefully, "We're gonna try to make 'em hear us across the street. Let's tell them not to embarrass us anymore!"
During the raucous, raggedy protest song that followed, Oberst railed against "the cowboy president," though the track (from 2002's "Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground") showed its age when Oberst sang that "the approval rating is high / So someone's going to die." The latter: Still happening. The former? Not so much.
Earlier in the show, there was also this: "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)," which Oberst introduced as a number "about a protest that happened in New York right before we went to war for no . . . reason. No, that's not true: We're at war so rich people can be richer. And poor people can be poorer. Or dead." The tune suffered without Emmylou Harris singing harmony, as she did on the studio version from "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," the better of the two Bright Eyes albums released simultaneously in January. ("Digital Ash in a Digital Urn" was the other.) The live performance was also marred by a dense, heavy sound in which the dueling drummers, loud bass, bleating trumpet and Oberst's own hollow-bodied electric guitar drowned out Sabrina Duim's harp and Mike Mogis's pedal steel.
The cranked-up full-band sound actually enhanced other songs, like the country-rocker "Hit the Switch," on which Oberst rather memorably bleated, "I feel completely alone at a table of friends." And it squashed the potential for disruptive catcalls. But that wasn't always the case Friday.
When Oberst performed a riveting solo acoustic version of the elegiac junkie ballad "Lua," the moment was ruined when some girls in the upper reaches of the not-quite-sold-out venue simultaneously shrieked, "WE LOVE YOU!!!!!"
They may love the indie heartthrob, but they apparently don't love his gorgeous songs enough to respect them. Oberst, however, was unfazed, lost in the lyrics and the gentle, acoustic strumming. But mostly the lyrics: For several lines, he stopped playing the guitar and just sang in that odd cadence of his, his left hand stuffed into his pants pocket as he explored the upper end of his range, sounding frail and vulnerable and hopelessly brilliant.