It’s a measure of how quickly a trend can become a cultural juggernaut that, at the young age of 24, Conor Oberst has emerged as the de facto leader of a new tribe of indie-rock eccentrics. He drew a capacity crowd to Sanders Theatre a week ago Monday as part of his tour supporting his two new Bright Eyes albums, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (both Saddle Creek). It was an evening of unabashed emotional music and offbeat theatrics headlined by Oberst’s shape-shifting Bright Eyes and supported by CocoRosie and Tilly and the Wall.
As Oberst proved during his 90-minute set, not only has he forged an indie-rock movement around Omaha’s Saddle Creek label, which he started with like-minded friends in the Faint and Cursive, but he’s also blossomed from troubled wiz kid to poised performer. It’s too bad, then, that he didn’t look as if he were having much fun. Maybe that was because of the intensity with which his deeply devoted fans watched him, yelling when he took a drink or mussed his hair. When a rare attempt at banter was cut short by shouting, he finally exclaimed wryly, “I’m trying to explain myself to you.”
His fans may make him uneasy, but Oberst looked comfortable enough on stage with a guitar in his hand and a backing band featuring a who’s who from the Saddle Creek roster: long-time producer Mike Mogis (Lullaby for the Working Class) on lap steel guitar, drummer Jason Boesel (Rilo Kiley), bassist Stefanie Drootin (The Good Life), keyboardist Nick White (Tilly and the Wall), trumpeter Nate Walcott, and Alex McManus (Lambchop) on guitar and backing vocals. Although he did play a few older songs, the set focused on fleshing out tracks from the indie-folk album I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. The louder tougher arrangement of the contemplative “Old Soul Song (For a New Order)” transformed the song into an earnest rocker; rowdier numbers like “Traveling Song” retained their complex grace. A 20-minute encore ended with a cacophonous “Road to Joy,” as Oberst indulged in one of rock and roll’s oldest rites of passages — he smashed his guitar and amp.
The Brooklyn-based trio CocoRosie played an inspired set as sisters Bianca and Sierra Casady weaved scratchy jazz-styled vocals into elegantly operatic harmonies over the groove of a human beatbox and samples of what sounded like children’s toys. The shiny and cute Omaha hipsters Tilly and the Wall, whose debut came out on Oberst’s Team Love label, played a joyous, fresh-faced set that included a tap-dancing percussionist. It all fit into the adventurous æsthetic that Oberst himself has embraced and the movement that seems to have grown out of his Bright Eyes experiments.