By Jon Stone | @jwstone
Bright Eyes, like a post-postmodern Mary Poppins, has promised to stay a little longer – but only until the wind changes: one last album, one final tour. And judging from the show Wednesday evening at Foellinger Auditorium on the University of Illinois campus, they intend to make a memorable exit – not unlike floating away on an umbrella. My engagement with Bright Eyes over the years has been one of passive admiring rather than full fledged fan-hood so the pangs of departing sorrow aren’t very strong for me. Nevertheless, the Bright Eyes persona of the very talented Conor Oberst will be missed if only for its place alongside other moment-defining/now-deceased bands – the closest analog being Jack White and the White Stripes. We can be comforted, I suppose, by the assurance that the artists behind these bands are putting to bed their projects in hopes of ensuring the continuance of a strong, coherent body of work rather than dragging them raw along the asphalt mile after mile and year after year. For both Oberst and White, one avenue in which we can look forward to the continuance of their work as curators and label-heads.
Case in point: The Mynabirds, who are signed to Oberst’s label Saddle Creek and released one of my favorite records last year, are a great example of that continuance. Drawing from the rich tradition of 60s rhythm and blues, the Mynabirds are revivalists in the best senses of that word. Laura Burhenn, lead singer and songwriter of the group has crafted a group of songs for the band’s debut What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood that feel both old and new – a wrangler of Dusty Springfield’s legacy in a similar vein as Fiona Apple (and I have no problem with that). It bodes well for Obest’s post-Bright Eyes career that I was more excited about the band on his label than I was about his.
The Mynabirds opened the show with a delightful set that didn’t deviate far from the record – an observation that is both praise and my only real critique of their set. As I mention, I love the record and a weak live representation of the songs is something that could have easily slowed momentum for the band. No worries there, though. Burhenn and her five bandmates showed their merit on the piano/keyboards-based songs with cello and brass embellishments as well as lovely two and three-part harmonies. Standouts included the soulful “What We Gained in the Fire” and “The Numbers Don’t Lie.” On the other hand, the performance felt safe – I didn’t notice any new songs in the set and very little artistic deviation or embellishment. I would have liked more. And I guess, technically, I got it. When Oberst and band took stage, Burhenn was with them – in a different dress, but with same great voice lending her harmonies to the majority of the Bright Eyes set.
Much has been written about Oberst as Bright Eyes – about the course of his career, the huge expectations that followed his initial entry into the music scene at the beginning of the last decade and the various ways that Oberst has met or not met those expectations over the years. A record like this year’s The People’s Key and a show like the one Wednesday night is evidence that despite public expectations, that career has been highly successful. Bright Eyes, the Bob-Dylan-meets-Bobcat-Golthwait folk singer that teenagers fell in love with in the early aughts was just barely represented in Wednesday’s performance. Some might use that as a point of criticism against the highly-produced, light-show performance we see on this tour, but I see it as a kind of natural evolution vis-à-vis bands who have held similar adolescent-agony mope spaces and then struggled (and succeeded) to push their way into new iterations (The Cure, for example, for whom Bright Eyes share more than just this one similarity).
Taken as a rock band, a genre space that Bright Eyes has moved in and out of over the years, the group of musicians who played Wednesday were excellent. I’m a big fan of Mike Mogis who plays guitar and pedal steel in the band, and the others, a crew that included (in addition to Mogis and Burhenn) two drummers, a multi-instrumentalist (Nate Walcott), and bassist, pushed the songs from the new record as well as a smattering of old tunes into new and interesting sonic spaces. I really like The People’s Key (minus the obnoxious quasi-spiritualist voice-over stuff) and, for me, those songs were the stand outs. Tunes like “Shell Games” and “Jejune Stars” got a sonic boost in the live environment. The band also played “Bowl of Oranges,” which, according to my more bonified BE fan/companion was a big deal. My favorite moment of the night was a duet performance of “Lua” from 2005′s I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning. Walcott accompanied Oberst with beautiful trumpet embellishments giving the song a depth not present on the record. It was perhaps the only time during the twenty-four song set that there was a real emotional connection between Oberst and the audience. For a guy who’s made a career out of heart-on-his-sleeve emotion, emotional detachment from an unflinchingly devoted audience might be one more good reason to move on to the next thing.
Setlist: Firewall / Take It Easy (Love Nothing) / Haile Selassie / Four Winds / Bowl of Oranges / No One Would Riot For Less / Trees Get Wheeled Away / Shell Games / Approximate Sunlight / Arc of Tim / Triple Spiral / Nothing Gets Crossed Out / Something Vague / Hot Knives / Beginner’s Mind / Cartoon Blues / Jejune Stars / Poison Oak / The Calendar Hung Itself / Lua
Encore: Gold Mine Gutted / Lover I Don’t Have to Love / Road to Joy / One for You. One for Me.