We made it all the way to “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.” Then we’d had enough. We hadn’t counted on the rain. Judging by the condition of everyone else in the crowd, they hadn’t either. But there’s a funny thing about rain. Once you’re wet, you’re wet. Then you’re just cold.
It started to rain before Bright Eyes started. Someone made an announcement from stage, a warning that there’s a good chance that there would be lightning, and rain. But that the show would go on. Once the rain became steady, we made our way down toward the stage and hid beneath a tree along with a half-dozen other people, including some poor guy with a broken leg who had been stretched out in a lounger, a piece of plastic covering his cast.
The perspective was better from down there. Up on stage in his black longsleeve hoodie thing was Conor saying something like “I’m going to play as long as you want me to or as long as they let me.” And with that, he lit into a new song, or a song I didn’t recognize. Within a few minutes, the rain began to subside and slowly, stop. But I knew better. I could see the storm clouds circling. I knew this was the calm before the storm.
I brought a moleskin with me and wrote down some observations after we arrived at around 6 p.m. right before Neva Dinova started their set. There was, what, maybe 3,000 people there? It just didn’t look like very many. About the size of crowd that you’d see at Shakespeare on the Green on a Saturday night. The weather had been cooperating, it was nice and humid.
From where we were, toward the back of the bowl, no one was really paying attention to Jake and his band of merry men. I had no idea who all those people were — since when is Neva Dinova an 8-piece with a violin? I did recognize, however, Roger Lewis, set up on stage right wearing a red-and-white striped hat. Neva’s hippy blues seemed to fit in with the Midwestern love-in vibe… sort of. This wasn’t a real hippie crowd. Hippies don’t wear Puma gear or Abercrombie shirts.
Next to us was a covey of O! kids — volunteers wearing red O! shirts that had been charged with handing out cheesy O! beach balls, supposedly for a photo shoot. “We’re asking people to not blow them up and throw them around until Bright Eyes gets on stage.” There was talk of some sort of choreographed moment when everyone was supposed to throw their beachball into the air, a moment that would never happen.
“I’m surprised that they allow people to put chairs so close to the stage,” said O! guy. “All those emo kids are going to stampede when Bright Eyes gets up there.” I nodded.
Bellows, from stage: “Do they have funnel cakes here?” He repeated the question and then someone yelled “No!” A joke… but everyone thought he was serious. Jake is funnier when he’s drunk on stage. Neva finished their set with a cover of “Here Comes the Sun,” ironic, considering that the storm clouds were just beginning to loom in the north.
There was about a half-hour break before Gruff Rhys came on. Some random observations:
— Standing about 10 yards in front of us was a kid wearing a homemade T-shirt that said “Conor Oberst is my hero.” Ironic? Maybe not.
— Overhead, a helicopter flew over the crowd in circles — chomp-chomp-chomp.
— Hacky Sack and the geeks that play it are the most annoying people in the world. No matter where they set up their “hacky” circle, they are always in the way, and inevitably, run into someone.
— We searched for the most “emo” kid in the crowd, and found him only a few feet in front of us — a boy in his late teens, sitting alone wearing a brown polo shirt and blue ball cap. Emo kids aren’t fashionable, they’re lonely.
— Lots of goth kids. More Goth kids than black people. We counted only two black people in the crowd, while there seemed to be an endless parade of Goth kids with their multi-zippered oversized pants, black hair, striped shirts and socks, and Lydia-from-Beetlejuice makeup. One guy looked like a Goth mime.
— In spite of all the hype about the cops, we never noticed them after we got inside the park (the perimeter outside the park, however, looked like a pre-riot staging area). We weren’t searched when we passed a couple cops on the way in, and easily could have snuck in a bottle of wine, though I assume there were “spotters” hidden somewhere (maybe in the trees?) who would have swooped down the instant we raised a bottle.
Next up came Gruff Rhys, barely visible seated on stage with an acoustic guitar, a beat-box/Casio device next to him. He does have a great voice, kind of like the guy from Seals and Crofts. Again, from our vantage point, no one was listening, maybe because the music was being sung in Welsh and was somewhat boring, helped along occasionally by the Casio and Rhys sense of humor.
Meanwhile, all through his set, people kept arriving. By 7:30 the crowd looked to be around 5,000, but there was still plenty of room to find a spot, lay down a blanket and relax.
Let’s get this out of the way. It makes no sense to compare this concert with the 311 concert from two years ago. Bright Eyes will never be as popular as 311. He’ll never sell as many records, he’ll never draw the kind of crowds 311 draws. 311 is a commercial pop band, heard regularly on Clear Channel radio stations, and will do whatever it takes to move units. Bright Eyes is not heard on the radio and will not compromise his art for sales or popularity. He shuns commerciality, even though there were gigantic US Cellular banners hung on either side of that stage.
What was the attendance right before Bright Eyes went on? Probably 10,000. Before the rain, from on top of the hill, there looked like fewer than 10k, and closer to 5k. Nothing like the 311 show two years ago, when you couldn’t get near the bowl if you got there after it started — in fact most of the south hillside had been filled as well (The estimate for that show had been 30,000 and that seems somewhat light).
So about 5 minutes after the rain announcement came from stage, it began to spit. Nothing horrible, sprinkles. Then slow, steady rain. That’s when we folded up the lawn chairs and got up to leave. Huddled under the tree while listening to the first couple Bright Eyes songs, we thought maybe the rain would stop, after all, the sun had come out and was blazing on the crowd right where we had been sitting.
Oberst never sounded better, with a strong, professional band backing him. The crowd, now standing, was into it. Introducing one song, Oberst made a pitch for starting a mass transit system in Omaha, just like they have in NYC, “where he lives now,” he said. Driving around in your car listening to music is fun, he said, but sometimes it’s good to get out of your bubble and talk to someone you don’t know. And it’s good for mother earth, who’s about to cry all over you.
About five minutes later, the sky opened up. And it poured. Our little tree provided little shelter. Mr. Broken Leg was pulled closer beneath the branches, but he was soaked. As was the thousands who were still there listening to their savior. We moved to a bigger tree and leaned against its thick, dry trunk for warmth. But it was obvious the rain wasn’t going to let up.
We made it to “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” and then gave up. One observation: It’s hard to walk in flip-flops when they’re soaking wet. I looked up at the stage as we left and could see some of the earlier bands and VIPs, along with Conor and his friends, warm and dry under the stage tarp, watching while all the world turned into a puddle of human rain.
Though it was pouring, there was no reason to run. We were already wet, and had five blocks until we’d get home. Two little girls ran by us on the bike path, their hair stuck to their T-shirts. They were followed a moment later by their little sister, yelling, “What are you running from? What are you running from? What are you running from?…“
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