The most moving moment of Bright Eyes’ hour-and-three-quarters open-air SXSW set at Auditorium Shores Stage (which borders Austin’s Lady Bird Lake reservoir) early Saturday evening wasn’t a song; it was a statement, following the Nebraska indie-folksters’ 17th number, “Poison Oak.” “I don’t know if you read the newspaper or watch television,” Conor Oberst told the crowd. “But today we started our third war. We dropped bombs on houses … We murdered children, as a country.” Then he quickly corrected his war tally to four (“Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan – any country with a ‘stan.'”) It was a welcome interlude of coherence in a concert that mostly seemed like a lot of words strung together, to not much end.
In fact, the only songs that came off concrete enough that an innocent bystander could be reasonably expected to decipher what Oberst was babbling about – and even those, not in their entirety – were probably “Poison Oak” (transvestite Polaroids, bad checks, stolen cars heading to Mexico), “Soul Song” (oldies, clock radios, walks to the mill), and the trumpet-augmented and seemingly Lou Reed-inspired “Lua” (parties in a West Side loft, coffee and paper in the morning, pigeons in the window), all of which came toward the end of the 24-song setlist. “Cartoon Blues” and “The Calendar Hung” benefited from something subliminally Spanish or south-of-the-border in their melodic lines; the latter also featured Oberst’s one really notable vocal moment, in which he approximated a kind of Middle Eastern mullah wail. Opener “Firewall” and, again, the speed-strummed “Cartoon Blues” did best at building a sort of droning momentum, after the manner of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, respectively. Plus, Oberst mentioned the supermoon once – night was falling and it was heading toward us, after all.
So it’s not like the set was a washout. In fact, it actually got better as it went on. But most of it – with Oberst generally backed by drum, electric guitar, and organ, with occasional pedal steel, accordion, and tambourine embellishments from his co-ed band – ran on a fairly tedious flat line, and the more bombastic (“Shell Games”) and electro-tribal (“Arc Of Time”) and country (“Cleanse Song”) numbers mainly just came off precious. But I’m still glad Conor is concerned about the wars.