I’ve never liked Leno, not from day one. Letterman always seemed like the more genuine personality, certainly funnier. Not anymore. Letterman comes off like a coke-addled freak, unable to carry a natural-sounding conversation with anyone without interrupting. He’s jittery like an insect or a fly cleaning itself. Leno on the other hand, is your typical good-ol’ boy just trying his hardest to make all the execs happy, with a range of humor that’s just slightly above Hee Haw. He’s corny and phony, but at least he sounds like he listens when people talk to him.
But I digress. It was almost a year ago that Bright Eyes was on Letterman, and the appearance represented a significant achievement for an Omaha boy done good. Even though he’s living in NYC a good part of the year, Oberst keeps his Omaha roots firmly in tact. Letterman’s one thing, but The Tonight Show’s made careers — a program that caters to family-loving white bread Bush voters throughout the iron, bible and corn belts. I’m sure Leno’s bookers thought Bright Eyes would be edgy, but add to that him singing “When the President Talks to God,” well, you got yourself a controversy.
Leno must have listened at the rehearsal, because after his monologue and during the guest roundup, he turned to his bandleader and said: “You hear the song he’s doing Kevin? I haven’t heard a protest song like this… you know I grew up in the sixties. I used to do a Jesse Winchester, a Jerry Jeff Walker, and Kris Kristofferson doing these anti-Nixon… This is a song that’s right up there. This will galvanize the audience. You’ll go one way or the other but you will have an opinion when he’s done.”
I TiVo’d the show, so I fast-forwarded past Wanda Sykes and some fat guy – no idea who he was. Then at the tail end of the show, out trots Conor dressed head to toe in C&W performance gear, complete with a red rhinestone-trimmed western shirt and matching pants, black scarf and black cowboy hat. Breaking the look, of course, was Conor’s trademark swoop cut, sticking out like black straw from beneath the brim. During the introduction, Leno said Conor’s been compared to a young Dylan and a young Springsteen, and then held up vinyl copies of Wide Awake and Digital Ash – I’m sure there were kids watching who wondered how you play those gigantic CDs.
For what it’s worth, this is the best Conor has sounded on TV. With no backing band and just his guitar, he spat out the lyrics like he was daring someone at the network to pull the plug. They didn’t, though they blanked out the b-word in the last verse. Then Conor ended the song by saying “Fil mish-mish, fil mish-mish.” No idea what it means, though a blog found by a Google search says that it’s an Arabic euphemism for “don’t hold your breath.” Leno looked agitated when he strolled out and said, “Good job,” but who knows. He may have just felt rushed, having to thank all of his guests in about 5 seconds. An interesting performance, and I suppose daring for Leno to air it. I doubt Letterman would have done it. Yet another milestone for Bright Eyes…
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