Conor Oberst, Dawes
Haw River Ballroom, Saxapahaw
Thursday, May 8, 2014
Bright Eyes frontman and mid-’00s manic pixie dreamboy Conor Oberst began his spring tour Thursday night at Saxapahaw's Haw River Ballroom with folk-rock act Dawes serving as both his opening act and backing band.
In December, the singer-songwriter became embroiled in controversy stemming from sexual assault allegations, even suing the alleged victim for defamation
. The ordeal has a particularly stinging local angle: the assault allegedly happened after a Cat’s Cradle show in 2003, and the accuser still lives
in Roxboro, N.C., about an hour northeast of Thursday's show. Though show adverts in Chapel Hill were recently defaced with the word "rapist," the controversy didn’t seem to hurt ticket sales, as the 700-capacity venue was sold out well before showtime. It did seem strange, though, that male attendees received pat-downs at the door, an unusual move at the Haw River Ballroom. Reps from the venue and the band haven’t responded to inquiries about whether or not this is standard procedure for Oberst’s shows.
Inside, the crowd was boisterous and enthusiastic, but it was difficult to understand why. Dawes’ songs aren’t particularly good or compelling, with songwriting full of mixed, clunky and heavy-handed metaphors. As for the music: You can put power chords behind ballads and let them both aim for infinity, but that’s not going to turn you into Bruce Springsteen.
The 34-year-old Oberst has been making music for nearly 20 years, but his latest material seems strangely to be the least compelling of his work. On one song, he waxed poetic and blandly with the line “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal,” a moon-eyed and thin romanticization of “the open road.” Everything else about the set felt flimsy, as if the musicians were aiming for mere mediocrity but missing even that low mark.
It was the Bright Eyes songs that lifted the set a little, but even those felt overwrought. Oberst’s peppered-in diva moves didn’t help—a spin between verses, the strum-and-lift-your-goblet-of-rock routine. The crowd, at least, ate it up, hanging on to each of Oberst’s words as he made moody faces and flipped his hair.
I've got to to be honest: I was once a big Bright Eyes fan. Thursday's show, though, retrenched the "former" bit, weighed down as it was by poor craftsmanship, tiresome attempts at rock ‘n’ roll and overinflated egos. The set felt like a series of mehs, handed down from the stage; "meh," I say, in response.