Those critics in K.C. and Seattle who so boldly dissed their Bright Eyes sets didn’t get it. They were blinded by The Faint’s boom-boom-boom bravado, thinking that they had been invited to a dance party, which was the last thing on Conor Oberst’s mind. There would be no dancing at the mighty MAC Center during his set, only upside-down crosses and lots and lots of angst. Oberst wasn’t trying to redefine electro-dance with his live rendition of Digital Ash, instead he was creating some sort of new electro goth. More later…
I could hear The Faint ripping into their set just walking from my car to the arena, pushing through crowds of smokers who were trying to get a last one in before settling down to the set. Once inside, there was plenty of space for us gen-ads to find a seat. All the fun was down on the floor, anyway, which from my vantage point looked like a seething flesh-mass of hysteria. The Faint always have known how to get people moving, and last night was no exception, even though they’ve never been so separated from the crowd. Big stages in big arenas mean barriers between the band and the throngs, and for the first time watching an Omaha act on stage I had flashbacks of my first arena shows way back in the ’70s and ’80s (Who remembers Lover Boy? Styx? Journey?). This was a real concert, from the bigger-than-life sound system to the battery of synchronized spotlights that — when striking you head-on — felt like they were burning a hole through your retinas.
Faint shows always have been glorified multimedia extravaganzas, but not last night. Were those the same projection screens that looked so massive inside Sokol Auditorium? Split in two and separated by a few feet in the Mac, they lost all of their punch and distracted from the live performance in a way that was never intended. If The Faint is going to continue playing arenas gigs, they’re gonna need screens about 8 times larger than these little projector numbers that made their videos look like overheads in a poorly lit board room, which is a shame because the videos lovingly created by Dapose and Jacob are such a big part of what they’re trying to do on stage.
The band sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them, though I thought Todd’s hollow vocals were too low and lost in a mix that, as always, was way too bass heavy. But hey, you gotta have lots of bass if you’re gonna get those rumps moving, right? I would guess that the audience indeed did enjoy The Faint’s set more than Bright Eyes’, and why not? If you were on the floor you had no choice but to jump and bump with the sweat-hog next to you. By contrast, no one moved during Bright Eyes’ set, and I’m not entirely sure they were supposed to.
At one time during BE I counted 10 people performing on stage, including a violin and cello player, trumpet, keyboards, two drummers (including Clark Baechle), bassist Joel Petersen, Mike Mogis playing two instruments at once, and Nick “Edward Sissorhands” Zinner on guitar. Despite all that, all you could really hear were the two drummers and Petersen, with Oberst chirping through the chair-rattling rumble. When the rhythm section actually gave the other performers some space, like on a couple Zinner guitar solos that burned like acid on glass, things got interesting instead of maudlin.
It’s obvious that pace is the reason some critics are saying Oberst’s set is a downer. The Faint’s entire set is one long throbbing dance orgasm that doesn’t let up until the bitter end. And their music has been around so long that everyone knows it. On the other hand, people are still getting used to Digital Ash and I doubt that a lot of the crowd recognized music. In addition, not all of the songs on that CD are very interesting — far from it. That means waiting for the dud to get over in hopes that the next one will be something interesting.
Oberst looked bored at times, or maybe it just seemed that way from the top of the bleachers. There were songs that he could have pushed up a notch (like “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”), but instead seemed to be just mailing it in. I don’t expect him to do a stereotypical rockstar turn, but he could have at least looked interested in what he was doing as he wandered around stage. At one point he seemed to be riding piano stand, eventually knocking it over — interesting, but not very rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe he should have lit it on fire?
In the end, Oberst’s set sounded like a modern indie rendition of Goth, what with its dark video images, semi-slow pace, throbbing electro-static sound, and lots and lots of talk about death and dying and the afterlife. I could see this going over big with the Goth crowd if Conor started looking the part, which he never will because Goth is probably the furthest thing on his mind when he was recording Digital Ash. Some say the album was a cash-in a la The Postal Service. I think he was probably going for something deeper than that, but I don’t know if he succeeded.
The set ended with a two-song fake encore (you know it’s fake if he’s prepared videos for them). Oberst’s only notable comment from stage was that he never thought he could pull off such a large show in Omaha. Tsk tsk, Conor, don’t you know that you’re a rockstar now?
Tonight, Rilo Kiley at Sokol Auditorium with Neva Dinova and Tilly and the Wall. Tickets were still available ($12) as of this posting. If it keeps raining like this, you’ll be able to take a bass boat to the show.
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