Monday, March 7, 2011

March 5, 2011: Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes
Thomas Wolfe Auditorium (Asheville, NC)
March 5, 2011

Is it telling that in the weeks leading up to the Bright Eyes show, I grew a tad sheepish when people asked me what show I was going to see? I love Bright Eyes, but I realize they carry a stigma. The layperson considers them an emo band, and you really can't blame them. Conor Oberst was the posterchild (and I do mean child) for preening wusspunk, an icon to legions of skunk-striped teenaged anguish-baskets doomed to wander suburbia because of their lamesauce parents. But Conor Oberst is a far better songwriter than any emo kid deserves, and thankfully he's at least stylistically distanced himself from that subculture. I'd place them in any number of genres before emo, but he's still got the look and voice of an angsty teen, and until that changes it's just too easy to call Bright Eyes an emo band.

My introduction to Bright Eyes was I'm Wide Awake and It's Morning, purchased not long after its release in 2005 (I wrote about back in August.) It was a record that defined my age of musical discovery, and my college years in general. Since then, I've acquired most of Bright Eyes' records, as well as Oberst's solo material. But it's taken me this long to catch the group live, and not for a lack of opportunities. They played Charleston sometime while I was in college, and a couple of years ago Oberst played Hilton Head (for some reason) with the Mystic Valley Band. I especially regret missing the latter show, since I enjoyed most of his solo output and I'm sure he worked in some Bright Eyes material as well.

When the Asheville show was announced some months ago, I was bound and determined to scratch Bright Eyes off my need-to-see list. After all, Conor Oberst says Bright Eyes is kaput after this record and ensuing tour. Plus, it's always a treat to visit Asheville, a cultural oasis nestled in the Appalachians. The town was dreary but welcoming as always, bristling with activity and dreadlocks for miles. We met up with a buddy for a pre-show beer and a bite. Cursive was the opener, a band I've never listened to and regrettably still haven't, since we found our seats minutes after the opening set concluded.

The Thomas Wolfe is a venue I know well, and it has a stellar track record for me. I saw Ryan Adams and the Cardinals there in 2005 and Wilco there a year later (I was able to meet Adams and Tweedy those nights, respectively.) It's a mid-sized seated venue, similar to the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. The kind of place where your upper-tier indie acts play, leading snobs to gripe that seated venues are lame. I've never minded a seated venue myself, if for nothing else than guaranteeing your spot and having a place to drape your sweater.

Our friend bought a high-balcony ticket at the box office, yet he was unimpeded in his efforts to join us in row H of the left-side orchestra. Dense with vestiges of his emo fanbase, the audience as a whole was fired up. When the houselights dimmed, you couldn't hear a shotgun blast from ten yards away. The eerie monologue that kicks off The People's Key played for a minute before the band (sans Conor) took the stage; Conor waited for his bandmates to man their positions before he entered on his own. It was the first example of his somewhat surprising stage behavior. I assumed he'd be the shrinking violet hiding behind his stringy locks, raging if the song called for it, but maintaining the role of reluctant messiah who cares about little more than getting his point across. Instead, Conor was a ham. He thrived on the attention, reaching down to grasp outstretched hands of his front row disciples (especially after the final song, when he dutifully walked the length of the stagefront, squeezing every hand, even bending down to hug a few fans.) This wasn't off-putting, mind you, just unexpected.

He was also rather chatty, another element of his stage persona I wasn't anticipating. His oft-pretentious song introductions I could have done without ("This next song is shaped like a rainbow," he breathed before "Arc of Time (Time Code)",) but overall he was personable. He thanked Cursive several times, and thanked the audience even more. Especially entertaining was his introduction of the band members, wherein he spent close to a minute lavishing hyperbolic praise on each player before reaching the templated conclusion of " the flesh, [band member]. Goddamn!"

The band, by the way, was excellent. It was a treat to watch Mike Mogis, the only non-vocal Monster of Folk who more than makes up for his silence by pretty much slaying any instrument he touches. He split time between guitar, pedal steel, and mandolin (his mando playing on "We Are Nowhere And It's Now" was total ear-candy.) Nate Walcott, the other steady member, was just as proficient on keys and trumpet. The other members' names I won't remember, but I just have one question: where do these bands find rail-thin indie chicks? Is there a state-funded recruiting program or something? Is it written into the doctrine of indie rock that, at some point, you must have a waifish hottie multi-instrumentalist with straight-fringe bangs in tow? It's uncanny! Anyway, Bright Eyes had one. Unfortunately, her vocals were swallowed in the mix, so that element was missed on songs like "Nothing Gets Crossed Out" where that breathy, angelic vocal part is so effective.

The setlist was satisfying, although I was surprised by a couple of things. First, he only played one tune off Cassadega ("Hot Knives"). If you'd asked me before the gig, I would have told you the one sure bet was hearing "Four Winds", but it never happened. They did do a tune from the Four Winds EP, "Cartoon Blues". Secondly, there's a decent amount of unexplored Bright Eyes catalog that I've neglected. My count was 7 out of 25 songs I couldn't identify on the spot. Research confirms that they liberally called on both b-sides and older LPs (Lifted is as far back as I go, although I'm delving into Fevers and Mirrors as we speak.) As expected, we heard a great deal of the new album, which I'm slowly warming to. From Lifted and Wide Awake we heard three and four songs respectively, and these shined the brightest in my opinion (I do note my own bias towards these records.)

It'd be hard not to award Song of the Night honors to "Lua", the lolling ballad from Wide Awake with which Conor closed the main set. His performance was just as delicate as the album version, and only Nate Walcott remained onstage to add some trumpet and keys. "Bowl of Oranges" was one I was happy to hear, although it's impossible to replicate that perfect mix and arrangement from the record. The song didn't suffer, but it's much better on Lifted. I've heard the same said about "Let Down" by Radiohead--live performances just can't do the song justice. "Road to Joy" was as explosive as you'd expect, and it probably should have been the set-closer. However, the band closed with "One for You, One for Me"--finale of The People's Key. I really like it as a closer for the album, but it doesn't have that resounding punctuational quality of "Road to Joy." We heard a few off Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, all of which went over well. It was interesting, actually, just how much of a response those songs received. To me it's always existed in the shadow of its fraternal twin Wide Awake, but in different circles (re: those of us who didn't discover Bright Eyes through folkier channels) the scenario may be reversed.

When we exited the venue, it was cold, windy, and raining. We sought refuge in some downtown bar and stayed for a nightcap or two. Then it was back to the hotel where we crashed hard. The weather didn't clear overnight, so we fled Asheville under gray skies and steady rainfall. Thankfully, the weather was about the only imperfect element of the trip. When you travel to see a band, your greatest concern is that the artist won't validate your efforts. Remember, your cost of attendance is inflated when traveling--gas, accommodation, and meals end up dwarfing the ticket price. So when the show is a bust, you find yourself feeling a bit duped or even insulted. (I've twice traveled to Atlanta to see underwhelming Ryan Adams shows.) But thankfully, Bright Eyes put on a performance that was worth the eight hour round trip. I hope Conor Oberst's claims of retiring Bright Eyes are fleeting. A plausible translation is dormancy as opposed to outright extinction--who knows if he'll feel like reprising the group in a decade or more*. But if not, I'm glad to have this show under my belt.

*He'll probably still look like he's 12.

Setlist and a few crappy pics:

Jejune Stars
Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
Hot Knives
An Attempt to Tip the Scales
Padraic My Prince
We Are Nowhere and It's Now
Arc of Time (Time Code)
Falling Out of Love at This Volume
The People's Key
Approximate Sunlight
Haile Selassie
Trees Get Wheeled Away
Something Vague
Nothing Gets Crossed Out
Beginner's Mind
Cartoon Blues
Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)
The Calendar Hung Itself

Gold Mine Gutted
Lover I Don't Have to Love
Bowl of Oranges
Road to Joy
One for You, One for Me

1 comment:

Dougo said...

Great review. Not familiar with too much of his stuff, but from what I've heard his concert performances are good.