• Josh Bis
  • Conor Oberst: You no longer need to wear black Converse to see him.

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP – A Penny Dreadful, playing Feb. 8-26 at Intiman Theatre
Laugh till it hurts at this outrageous camp comedy the NYTimes calls “Wickedly funny!”

The first time I saw Conor Oberst was in 2005. I was 16. He was playing with his so-many-feelings band Bright Eyes and fellow Saddle Creek Records labelmates the Faint, and I remember getting there hours early, waiting outside the venue, and counting the number of black Converse shoes in the line to get into the show. Black Converse was no longer the agreed-upon uniform for the packed crowd last night at the Showbox, but Oberst delivered a set that was just as impassioned as ever—this time to a crowd of twentysomethings and hip NPR parents, with a few teens mixed in.

  • Josh Bis
  • Feelings.

I overheard two teenage girls who knew all the Saddle Creek gossip I once knew by heart. They chatted about which of Conor's ex-girlfriend's brother may or may not be in the band, how "Lua" is not actually a happy song ("It's about doing cocaine!" the young woman shrieked), and how they hoped he'd play "June on the West Coast." Me too, girl.

He didn't play that Letting Off the Happiness gem, but what followed was a set filled with songs from his solo records, as well as a few bones to old Bright Eyes fans. Stirring renditions of "We Are Nowhere and It's Now" and "Bowl of Oranges" blended with newer, less-battered-heart-on-sleeve (but still rich with feelings) tunes to create a thoroughly entertaining set.

  • Josh Bis
  • "This one's for Microsoft's tit!"

At one point, he shouted out Ben Gibbard, remembering a 2001 Death Cab for Cutie release show for The Photo Album that he flew out to play at the Showbox. Later, he kicked a monitor off the stage during a political number after saying something about people "sucking on Microsoft's tit." Sometimes-guitarist Jonathan Wilson's solos got unnecessarily wanky, but I forgave it when the band played one of my favorites, "The Calendar Hung Itself." But it felt different to me this time. What I once found an utterly romantic song now seems totally creepy: "Does he cry through broken sentences, God I love you far too much?/Does he lay awake listening to your breath?" Yikes. Oberst dealt with his own creeps at the show, getting catcalled by two young women in the audience who yelled "Have sex with us" multiple times. How rude.

What really strikes me about Oberst is that despite his image as a sad sack who hates the spotlight, he really is a great showman and songwriter. He thrashes around with his guitar, adding in embellishing shouts and changing lyrics as he goes, his eyes rolling back in his head with feeling. He always sings like he means it. It's more than an exercise in nostalgia for me to see him play. His performance holds up, and his new songs are better than ever. I may have grown out of those Converse shoes, but I still haven't grown out of Conor Oberst.