BRIGHT EYES at the Henry Fonda Theater, April 10
As a sign of just how much the fortunes of underground pop music have changed, I'll introduce a term that would've been an oxymoron three years ago: indie-rock heartthrob. Conor Oberst (a.k.a. Bright Eyes) is just that. The singer-songwriter's humble beginnings jibe with the typical indie-rock creation myth — a bumfuck city of birth (Omaha, Nebraska); a record deal gone awry (at age 14, his first band, Commander Venus, was signed to a label that evolved into Wind-Up Records, home of Creed); sketchy songs committed to 4-track. Yet, as soon as Oberst grew short hairs and began to get some meat on his bones, he left his smalltime origins behind. Cut to August 2002 and the release of Bright Eyes' fourth proper album, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. First-week sales landed it at the top of Billboard's Heatseeker chart; salivating A&R men considered pilgrimages to Omaha; fawning coverage appeared in Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine; excited fans actually fainted at Bright Eyes' last set of Los Angeles gigs.
Last Thursday, the second of two sold-out nights at the Henry Fonda Theater, Bright Eyes didn't live up to the hype. "You're hot," one male audience member shouted. "Actually, I feel kind of cold," answered Oberst. It's not that the show lacked bright spots. Now 22, Oberst has the homo-hetero appeal of a young River Phoenix; his singing voice — a unique, cracked, nasal whine — gets across all sorts of messy adolescent emotions; his stage banter is genuinely and appealingly inarticulate. Problem is, while Oberst possesses the tightly wound passions of a young Bob Dylan, he has only about one-quarter of the songwriting skills and musicianship. Though his exaggerated warble may well make him the voice of a generation, he's definitely not the guitar player of a generation. A 10-piece ad hoc orchestra accompanied him last year, raising enough racket to paper over his ham-fisted acoustic strum, but this band was a scaled-back affair of five players trading off on drums, bass, guitar and a variety of supplementary toys (banjo, melodica, vibes, pedal steel). The extra space made his faults readily apparent.
Oberst's strengths are considerable enough that he's probably here to stay. His lyrics, in particular, present a unique Gen Z p.o.v., a jaded hopefulness delivered via twisty run-on sentences ("We have no health insurance/No cellular service . . . so imagine what you want/and hold on to that thought . . . so believe in who you are/and just make sure to stay in character"). Right now, however, youthful hubris is holding him back. At the end of the set, he swigged from a bottle of wine and revealed the limits of his current imaginings. "I had this dream in which I was superdrunk and supertired in front of all these people . . ." he said, trailing off and exiting stage left.
SOULFLY at the Roxy, April 11
Soulfly's metal groove is at least 3-D, maybe 4 or 5. Roy Mayorga's drums are huge, of course, with loose Brazilian rattlethuds and timbale rolls making you shake side to side 'stead of up & down. But what the H is Marcelo Diaz doing with that waydown bass? Sounds like he tunes to the room, not some "note." Whatever, he's got the floorboards vibrating like a Barcalounger, and if you lean against the back wall where the standing waves build, you receive a full-body massage at no additional cost. Bellowman Max Cavalera woofs like a mastiff within the greater implications of the beat; an occasional rainforest percussion jam breaks things up nicely. The layered noise guitars of Mikey Doling and Cavalera are there mainly for goosh in the poosh, with Doling sticking in creepy high nail-scratch tones by way of accent; when he hits a ridiculously fast wah solo, he makes guys clutch their skulls, like, Dude, don't you know we're high? Heavy weed consciousness and sex feel — an unbeatable combo.
Meaty cuts from all three Soulfly slabs are whacked out: a grunting "Back to the Primitive," a sing-along "Fire," a patriotic "Brasil," with subliminal flashes on Blue Cheer and Zep bridging the ancient-to-modern range of this very original outfit, which owes little to anybody except Sepultura, Cavalera's old band. Just when we're good and sweaty, they quit after less than an hour following a supercharged "Eye for an Eye." Well, Max did croak something about breaking his front tooth. Chances are he'll keep biting the mike, though. (Greg Burk)
SEEMEN at someplace in downtown Los Angeles, April 11
A peeling barn roof sloughs the soul of aged wood in the calm before the spectacle that is to silence and solemnity what Saddam was to the Kurds. "You get to run a machine that can kill you. It's fun!" Demonstrating 10 interactive mechanisms, Seemen's Kal Spelletich speaks down a bullhorn: "These are experiments, so there's no right or wrong." An EKG measures a huge dog's heartbeat across a gently drifting jazz backdrop. The somatic sounds make a small machine march and bark flame; an altered chew toy opens and closes demonic metallic flower petals. "Kali," a velvet chair with spindly metal arms, is operated at the armrests by a fetching volunteer in fine footwear. The scent of raped ozone oozes as a hacked lie detector belches flames from a halo over another volunteer's head whenever her lies manifest.