March 17, 2011
To say the scene at Bright Eyes’ Nashville show at the Ryman Auditorium was surreal would be an understatement. The historic mid-sized room that was original host to The Grand Ole Opry has had virtually every notable musician grace its stage through the years. In anticipation of the night’s proceedings, filling its halls and seats were Generation Xers and cuspers, people who have come of age and whose souls have found acceptance and identification within the brilliantly written personal words of band founder Conor Oberst. It was going to be a phenomenal Saint Patrick’s night for all muckers — who came from as far away as Australia — that took part in the sea of green shirts and skirts in a house that still boasts a "Confederate Gallery."
The evening began with a set from The Mynabirds led by vocalist and pianist Laura Burhenn, a fitting opener who filled the air with limbering up numbers that were elementally diverse, ranging from gospel flavors to country and R&B flair. It was interesting because in the music business model — as in any business model — demographics are key. Burhenn possessed just the right levels of fragility, presence, and genuineness to quickly garner resonance with a Bright Eyes crowd that is known for its affinity for asexual musical flavor and aptitude. After a short break, Burhenn returned without her band mates to provide additional key and vocal accompaniment for the main attraction, the brain child of Conor and permanent members Mike Mogis and Nathaniel Walcott.
As has been standard for the tour, the evening began with the opening track from (recently released)The People’s Key, the ominous preamble-like "Firewall," a number that basically sums up the feeling of not being able to relate well.
As obligatory opening cheers subsided, the choral supplementary pedal steel play of Mogis worked its way down the audience’s collective spine. With it, the gatherers’ proclivity and warmth grew in seeming analogous manner and the the tone had been set; much like the new album, the evening would be well thought out and filled with imagery and foreshadowing.
Oberst reached full form as the night progressed. Vocally, he stretched as far as his relatively limited range would allow. Falling down at one point during his emotionally-infused writhing during the bridge of the revved up Dylan-esque "Bowl of Oranges," his moves were anything but calculated, his (sometimes rambling) words of appreciation and observation anything but sanitary.
What was perhaps most striking was the response from the crowd to the new material. Excluding Monsters of Folk, other Oberst projects have been met with less than unabated acclaim from Bright Eyes audiences. Many had low expectations for The People’s Key, an album that fans knew would be an almost complete abandonment of the previous rootsiness that has all but defined the Bright Eyes sound. Judging from not only the facial and body reactions, but the lyric for lyric harmony coming from most in the hall, those expectations have been pleasantly dismissed.
Though the band was definitely well rehearsed, there were rusty moments, primarily of an equipment nature. But all were easily forgiven with the assistance of Oberst’s self-mocking and ownership of his responsibility for his portion of the quandary — at one point apologizing to his tech who had to come on stage to show him which button to push so that his guitar would amplify. Though the apology was given, the mishaps were indicative that Conor is a performer who appears to be more interested in crafting lyrics that resemble poetic stories than which buttons to press.
Highlighted by the high-flying arena worthy track "Shell Games," a song that seems to have been constructed with the live format in mind due to its chant imploring line "everyone on the count of…three" and its large sound. If it was the highlight, "Poison Oak" (an unintentionally counterpointed number to "Shell Games") was the underscore. The personal singer/songwriter cry was sung with candor while Oberst was lit by two par cans positioned overhead, further accentuating the soul-nudity that this song – laced with suicidal, humiliated, and drug dependent riddled metaphors – inherently possesses.
The two songs collectively showed a journey that Oberst has been on since before his public career began. With the former being where he presently is — forgiving and "still angry with no reason to be" — and the latter being where he formerly was, a confused young man reminiscent of childhood when he "still believed in war." Both were equally deep and equally well-received by the Ryman audience, who again, has come of age in parallelism with this artist.
In a catalogue spanning effort, if what Oberst has said about shelving the moniker Bright Eyes is true, he is abandoning it with a bang. One can only wonder if there will be another writer who can blend lyrics into sounds elementally steeped in folk, Americana and a twist of country-all whilst so doing under the indie branding-as well as Oberst has. Furthermore, it is nearly a certain assumption that there will likely never be another who will be able to make it all translate in the large live setting as well as this trio and its rotating cast of players did in Nashville on St. Patty’s Day 2011.
Firewall, Jejune Stars, Take It Easy (Love Nothing), Four Winds, Shell Games, Poison Oak, Bowl of Oranges, Beginner’s Mind, An Attempt to Tip the Scales, Spring Cleaning, Approximate Sunlight, Road to Joy, Cleanse Song, Triple Spiral, The Calendar Hung Itself, Arc of Time, Hot Knives, We Are Nowhere And It’s Now, Ladder Song
Encore: Lua, Lover I Don’t Have to Love, Old Soul Song, One for You, One for Me
Click the thumbnail to view David Shehi’s photos fromThe Show!