Saturday's three-hour, damaged-indie-rocker love-in began with an astonishing cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance." The Oregon troubadour M. Ward transformed the post-disco anthem into a deathly folk ballad and in three minutes reminded a theater packed with impressionable young fans -- who hardly needed reminding -- that perspective is everything. The affectionate parade of music and musicians that followed, which involved much nuzzling and kissing and goatlike butting of heads, built on Ward's stunning opening salvo. Songs were reinvented and so was the whole idea of collaborative spirit.
Conor Oberst, the Nebraskan wunderkind who drives the fluid musical vehicle Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, and M. Ward don't have much in common stylistically beyond the vaguely useful indie tag. Oberst lost himself -- as expected -- in a rush of deep, disheveled words and dismal, lovely chords, whispering and screaming his way to a dazzling state of self-loathing. James, who was fighting a cold, blew through measured, mournful country ballads like a howling wind. In Ward's hands, the humble acoustic guitar was a weapon, and simple folk songs slipped into a hard, sepia-toned surreality.
But the trio of artists -- who performed separately, together, and with a shuffling cast of musicians anchored by pedal steel guitarist Mike Mogis and Azure Ray singer Maria Taylor -- is bound by bravery. Oberst's cutting dismissal of songwriters who "detail their pain in some standard refrain" could have been the battle cry for this 11-date tour, which wrapped at the Somerville Theatre. Ward's solo set included "Undertaker," a breezy death tune that quoted Paul McCartney's "Every Night," and an abusive blues called "Sad Sad Song," which featured a gentle rap from a man identified only as Donny from Lincoln, Neb.
James went on next, and while his songs -- normally played by a Southern-fried, reverb-heavy rock band -- were the least visceral and least alluring of the bunch, they were haunting. This is mainly because his voice, a nasal, disembodied moan, sounded exactly like Neil Young in the hereafter.
Oberst is a true original. His songwriting process seems to involve a violent scouring of the brain followed by a punishing scraping of the heart that is subsequently documented in copious journal entries intended to be torn out and sung in their entirety. Onstage he and his friends reimagined songs from the most recent Bright Eyes album, "Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground," in newly tender, still more harrowing ways. Oberst continues to touch the cosmic void so the rest of us can suffer torment and anguish from the relative safety of our aisle seats and iPods.
Community being one of the evening's themes, Oberst joined us, singing one song from an empty seat in the darkened audience. Independence being the other, Oberst, James, and Ward closed the show with covers of Lucinda Williams's "Metal Firecracker" and Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country" -- fitting tributes to like-minded mavericks.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With Jim James and M.Ward
At: Somerville Theatre, Sunday