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Bright Eyes' Bleeding Heart

Conor Oberst preaches to the converted in Chicago

September 18, 2002 12:00 AM ET

Apparently no one told Conor Oberst that reports of irony's death have been greatly exaggerated. Achingly sincere and awkwardly melodramatic as only a twenty-two-year-old can be, Oberst has managed the neat trick of translating ponderous self-obsession and soul-killing misery into a growing cottage industry, and with the new Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, the fourth album he's released under the Bright Eyes aegis, the Omaha native has even cracked the Billboard Top 200.

Concentrating primarily on material from that CD, Bright Eyes' sold-out appearance on September 13th at Chicago's intimate Old Town School of Folk Music opened with the woozy, waltz-like "False Advertising," and from the outset the thirteen-piece band achieved live a vibrancy that is merely suggested on record. Anchored by no fewer than three percussionists, the songs marched forward with a militaristic purpose that brought welcome structure to Oberst's sprawling lyrics, quavering vocals and ragged, folky melodies. Although all of Oberst's songs seem explicitly autobiographical, the show's climactic number, Lifted's "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)," proved particularly telling -- "I do not read the reviews, no I am not singing for you," he cried, and the predominantly twenty-something crowd responded with the reverential applause of true believers, bringing to mind a pep rally at a school for disaffected youth.

But while self-protection and critic-proofing are all well and good, only when Oberst grows tired of preaching to the converted and truly challenges himself will his music achieve the importance it so nakedly strives to attain.

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Song Stories

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A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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