If the line that wrapped around the sold-out Coolidge Corner Theatre and ran the length of the neighboring CVS parking lot Friday night wasn’t enough to tell you whether Bright Eyes wunderkind Conor Oberst has truly arrived, the scruffy dude wearing the homemade " I’m Conor Oberst " T-shirt was the clincher. Not that anybody believed the guy for a second, since those who filled the 580-seat theater knew exactly what the 21-year-old singer/songwriter looks like: moppy medium-length brown hair atop a wan, impossibly young face and slight frame, like one of those saucer-eyed-sad-orphan oil paintings of boys and girls hungry to be loved in the rain.
Oberst himself suffers no such dearth of affection or affirmation from a legion of followers who have clutched each of his three furiously bleak albums (the most recent is last year’s Fevers and Mirrors, on the Omaha-based Saddle Creek imprint) and this year’s new EP, Oh, Holy Fools (also Saddle Creek), to their collective breast. In fact, as he’s confessed in interviews, Oberst — who’s the lone permanent member of Bright Eyes — seems a bit flustered by all the attention.
Yet the songs themselves — jagged torrents of words and poetry and spiraling, steeple-climbing verses — carried none of the tentativeness characteristic of a sensitive indie boy discovering his art in public. In fact, they seemed in a hurry to get themselves out into the open, with a brash fervor that recalled folks like Elliott Smith, Neutral Milk Hotel, and early Bob Dylan. The opening " A Song To Pass the Time " began as a delicately picked folk meditation on amplified acoustic guitar that soon trembled with a fever-dream rush of visions and associations sketched from Oberst’s doorstep perch: empathy for sad suburban homes, contempt for a society that numbs itself, and his own confusion concerning what, exactly, to do about those dilemmas.
Along the way, Oberst’s splintery but sweet voice furnished his skeletal melodies with the flesh of substance, unreeling secret lives of lovers and paradise one moment ( " Motion Sickness " ) and vultures and parasites the next ( " Arienette " ). He stabbed at syllables, recoiled in momentary silence and then, replenished, lunged with new thought and purpose. And though the cycle kept repeating itself, it sounded new and thrilling each time.
The same couldn’t be said for singer/songwriter Simon Joyner, who opened the show with a 60-minute set of doleful, excruciatingly airless songs that aimed for Leonard Cohen but meandered endlessly — and humorlessly — instead.