A YouTube excavation turns up a clip of a quivering Conor Oberst performing “When the Curious Girl Realizes She Is Under Glass” in 2000—a song that would eventually land on Bright Eyes’ breakthrough album Fevers and Mirrors later that year—in what looks like an university auditorium. He spends the first 30 seconds warning the crowd that his piano skills are dismal. In the four minutes that follow, he stops the song four separate times to shakily apologize for mistakes before eventually cutting it short, retreating to his guitar, and confessing, “That was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done.”
On Thanksgiving Eve he’ll again take to a theater, again by his lonesome (save for some “special guests,” promises a spokesperson), again shouldering a voice that, while deeper than it was 12 years ago, is still not entirely sturdy. This time the theater will be draped in gold and red velvet, though, fitted for a crowd of over 2,800—and be one of the most famous in the world.
In the time that's lapsed between that early show and his arrival this week at Carnegie Hall, we've seen Oberst as a nervous wreck perched on a barstool, as a spoiled rock-star type (an Irish website recounts a 2002 show in Belfast, during which he spit on the crowd before calling it quits), and as a seasoned showman leading a band that has at times featured as many as 15 members. At no point along the way has he shied from the big stuff: love, death, authenticity, war, religion, each tackled with a youthful conviction. If YouTube had been around to dispatch broadcasts of his performances in real time rather than in retrospect, it's hard not to wonder what kind of impact now-rabid Internet commenters would have had on the sprawling, almost old-fashioned career he's enjoyed—the many incarnations of Bright Eyes, the Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk, the recently revisited Desaparecidos. They might’ve ended it for him back in 2000. “The picture is far too big to look at kid,” he starts out on Bright Eyes' landmark album Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil… Tonight, no one who had watched the boy barely get through a piano recital 12 years ago would argue.
Conor Oberst plays Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, November 21, with Ian Felice. The show is SOLD OUT.
Photo Courtesy Conor Oberst