CoMusic Review: Bright Eyes at the Blue Note

Bright Eyes last go around is happening right now. Conor Oberst’s primary project is set to retire at the conclusion of this tour. His last two efforts under the Bright Eyes moniker have been less than stellar, particularly considering his much fresher work with the Mystic Valley Band and the Monsters of Folk.

I’ve been attending Bright Eyes shows for quite a while. One thing I can always look forward to is a quality opener, usually from Omaha. Saturday night was no different as Conduits opened with an impressive set.

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Conduits sound like the National, fronted by Hope Sandoval channeling Patsy Cline. Drones from keyboards and Hammond organs provide balance with vocalist Jenna Morrison as the rest of the band lightly fiddled and strummed the in-between. The last two songs of the set really proved Conduits’ sonic value and convinced me to buy some music. I look forward to hearing more from Conduits soon.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve seen Bright Eyes several times and figured this would be a nice farewell. I treat anything Oberst does as a guilty pleasure. I mean, he seems to mostly appeal to 14-year-old girls. Then, I listen to his songwriting and dissect the instrumentation of his compositions and recognize his talent as well-beyond the Bieber set. You don’t have to love Conor Oberst, but you can’t deny the man’s musical ability.

The set didn’t feel like a farewell. Oberst mainly packed the list with songs from the last seven years and not the last 12 or 15. For me, farewells and reunions feature gems from an entire catalog, not just the most recent material. The songs were well-chosen and sequenced. I even vowed to give this year’s The People’s Key another listen as a few of the tracks translated well live. Still, a last go as Bright Eyes suggested that we’d hear  ”The City Has Sex”, ”Neely O’Hara”, or “The Calendar Hung Itself…”, but none of those were heard Saturday night (assuming they didn’t play another song during the encore – I left three songs in when it was clear I’d hear nothing old).

The other way in which this did not feel like a Bright Eyes farewell was Oberst’s demeanor. Sure, he’s a passionate and captivating performer, but something felt…well…let me explain.

Conor Oberst owned the stage Saturday. However, he used to own it through a sense of urgency, drunken youthful exuberance, and the music seeping from every pore of his body. Now, his music, his persona are out there. He’s no longer selling us his soul. Now, he’s selling entertainment and possibly a few records along the way. His antics on stage were the typical – dramatic hand gestures, shaking his luscious locks, spitting, making political gestures, and pulling an onstage stunt (burning a religious leaflet and calling it his “review”), but  one got the sense he had done this before. It almost felt as if he had written on the setlist “complain about how the war has been going on for like eight years or something.” He’s been doing this for a while. This is what Bright Eyes does.

Now, I’m not saying it all was contrived. Someone more cynical would take it that way. I’m just saying Oberst’s actions on stage felt less spontaneous than they did so many years ago. That’s okay. That’s what happens to rock stars, even the indie kind. This might be why he’s dropping Bright Eyes after this tour.

I remember hearing of this brash young man, opening for Stephen Malkmus by playing “Summer Babe” on accordion and leaping off the bass drum at the Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans. Or what about the time I saw him play the first three songs with a George W Bush mask on, even refusing to take it off when he took swigs from a bottle of red wine? There are stories about his first time in Columbia, sneaking off to get wine before a KCOU gig despite being underage. Another story has Oberst playing kickball (or whiffle ball) with some locals and members of The Faint. I remember seeing him continue to play for fans in the alley behind a venue who had cut the power in order to stay compliant with an arbitrary curfew.

The man has a history for doing the dramatic and unexpected. That’s why it was somewhat disappointing to see Bright Eyes the stage show. The musicians were uber-professional. Oberst played it up to the crowd, even reaching to shake hands or recite his lyrics as if rapping with Jay-Z. Bright Eyes is no longer bedroom tapes brought live by a skinny kid drunk on red wine. Of course, it hasn’t been that way for a while.

Still, that’s not Conor Oberst’s fault. He’s still really talented. His voice and musicianship have improved over the years as has his stage presence – it’s just more conscious now. I can’t say that it was a bad show. It wasn’t life-altering, but it was good. Bright Eyes put on a great set, worthy of the Blue Note’s 31st birthday celebration for sure.

I could go on and on about what it means that Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes have grown up and what that means to me. It still doesn’t change that a lot of people had a great time seeing Bright Eyes. I too enjoyed what I saw. It was sad to think that I won’t see the same Bright Eyes I used to see. It’s disappointing that his records don’t have the same effect Fevers and Mirrors had on me the first time I heard it. But that isn’t Conor Oberst’s fault and it shouldn’t take away anything from Saturday’s show. Those are my hangups. Like Oberst closing the book on Bright Eyes, I should close the book on this pseudo-rant and be glad I saw them one more time.

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