Bright Eyes offered a raw, emotional wringer of a performance at the Uptown
If you measure art by whether it makes you feel something, Bright Eyes’ performance Friday night at Uptown Theater was exceptional. Bright Eyes is led by Conor Oberst, who offered a barely-hinged performance.
The show opened with the stellar Hurray for the Riff Raff, who reminded me of velvet, of marigolds, of shimmering light on water, of a great moss-covered oak. Their indie folk is enriched by Alyssa Segarra’s soulful voice and glorious charisma on stage. Definitely recommend.
But this was Bright Eyes’ first full tour in support of their most recent album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, which released in 2020. “Not a good year to put out an album,” said Oberst from the stage, “Not a good year to do anything.”
While Bright Eyes is often used synonymously with Oberst, the band does have two other members, Nathaniel Walcott and Mike Mogis. Mogis did not appear at the Kansas City show—he was out with COVID, along with a couple other crew members that had been on the tour with them.
Oberst said they’d begun the tour with 14 musicians and were down to 11 for the Kansas City show. He said they were adapting set lists and doing what they could. The arrangements nevertheless felt full and vibrant–or beautifully spare–so there was no noticeable loss for the audience.
The multi-faceted artists on stage still played the band’s indie folk signature with guitars, drums, keys, synths, cello, violins, trumpets, sax, and more.
Oberst looked frail on stage: a soft belly and rounded shoulders, a wrist brace (from falling off the stage earlier on the tour), his shaggy hair in his face, cheeks covered in stubble. He appeared inebriated, and grew more so during the set, as he drank deeply from the collection of beverages on top of his piano.
Even so, there was a force behind his words, and his singing came out true. He was an animated performer and speaker throughout the set, doing awkward little dances on the upbeat songs, dropping to his knees at moments of pleading in another, and often pacing the stage, head down.
He introduced “Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)” by saying, “I’m bored of talking about this stuff, I’ll do the expedited version.” He talked about living in New York in 2003, about the people who protested at the beginning of the Iraq War.
The song’s weariness is even more fitting now, as our government has given us more and more reasons to protest in the last two decades. He sings: “And there were barricades to keep us off the street/ But the crowd kept pushing forward / Until they swallowed the police / Yeah, they went wild.”
Oberst might be sick of talking about his politics or about his songs, but he can certainly still perform them.
The set was not all melancholy tunes. It was balanced with driving, exposed ballads like “Persona Non Grata,” songs like the poppier synth-rock-forward “Falling Out of Love at this Volume,” and the upbeat “Tilt-a-Whirl.”
Oberst described “No One Would Riot for Less,” off of 2007’s Cassadaga, as “a weird love song.” A love song for the apocalypse, really, with this chorus: “So love me now / Hell is coming / Yeah, kiss my mouth / Hell is here.” The warble of his voice reverberated through his whole body, like a plucked guitar string in slow motion.
The backing musicians offered angelic vocals along with the steady meditative thrum of the song, creating an absolutely stunning composition to see live.
The man behind the musical arrangements, Nathaniel Wolcott, stood stage left surrounded by keyboards on three sides, wearing a suit jacket, like the captain of his own ship. As Oberst gave Wolcott credit for the cinematic arrangements after their performance of “Stairwell Song.”
The moments when Oberst’s voice went haggard worked for his emotive style of folk music. The elaborate orchestral structure buoyed Oberst’s distinctive voice and storytelling. Seeing him wobble and slur his way through the night, while also playing deeply vulnerable songs, made the performance bittersweet. What does it cost him to give the audience this experience?
Oberst grew more unstable and was nearly losing his voice as the show reached its conclusion. For “Neely O’Hara,” Oberst wandered the stage singing, repeatedly getting his mic cord looped around the monitors at the front of the stage. Bless the tech repeatedly trying to untangle him.
As the lowkey fuzzy song built, the strings added tension. Oberst leaned onto the small stand holding his synth pad, head laying down into his elbow, and moaned into the mic, scrabbling static with his hand on the synth and the feedback building to a roar.
They backed off the wall of sound to perform the stripped-bare “First Day of My Life,” a tender love song that is as optimistic as Bright Eyes gets. Oberst on acoustic guitar was accompanied by a trumpet player he introduced simply as Jackie. Oberst claimed they hadn’t practiced this together yet, and thanked Jackie for being game to try it live (she killed it).
The final song of their main set, “Comet Song,” started off strident and declarative, grounded in strong piano, before launching off with the full yet urgent horns and strings. Oberst was bent over to the floor, and he shouted the final line, “You’re approaching even as you disappear! Ah!”
He flung the mic out of his hand and turned to exit with a flick of a wave to the crowd, snatching his drink on his way off the stage as the band played the triumphant final chords of the song.
After a few minutes, they returned to stage for the haunting three-song encore, beginning with “Ladder Song,” in which emptiness became an instrument. The whole show was ribboned with the sense that Oberst could unravel at any moment, making every song hard-earned.
He ad libbed several times in his verses, pausing his hands on the keys and adding in emphatic asides to the audience. Where the original lyrics say: “Gotta get to the concert, run off with a dancer, gonna celebrate,” he instead sang: “Gotta get to my concert, run off with a dancer—I don’t fuckin’ care about the guarantee.”
He stopped his hands, looked out at the crowd, and repeated, “I don’t fuckin’ care,” with a tortured emphasis—the stress and angst seemingly about actually being able to show up and perform.
The song concluded with just Oberst and spare piano chords. “This whole life has been a… hallucination, but–” he pointed out at the crowd, “You’re not alone, in anything.” He then changed the lyrics again: “You’re not alone, even when you’re trying to be.”
At the end of the fractured song, Oberst rubbed his eyes and face before getting up to continue the show.
Imagine going to a theater and seeing an actor doing a devastating portrayal of a man in despair, but there is no mask, there is no act, and you go home sunken in the knowledge that that was his own despair–that you just got to see what he truly lives with. That’s what this was.
And like he said at the end of the show, before their final song, “One for You, One for Me:” “Whatever thing happens to you, whether it’s bad or good, happens to me. And whatever thing happens to fuckin’ me, it’s gonna happen to you.”
We are bound up together. Oberst was suffering, which implied that we were suffering, too.
Bright Eyes setlist
Dance and Sing
Lover I Don’t Have to Love
Bowl of Oranges
One and Done
Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)
Falling Out of Love at This Volume
No One Would Riot for Less
Haile Selassie (with Alynda Segarra)
Persona non grata
First Day of My Life
The Calendar Hung Itself…
I Believe in Symmetry
One for You, One for Me