You know, the great thing about Bright Eyes is that no two shows are alike. Sure, you generally hear the same songs you’ve heard all the other times, but there’s always some slight change, something different that keeps things interesting.
What made last night’s show at The Waiting Room one for the ages (other than the fact that it was 1 Percent Productions’ 10-year anniversary — seems like only yesterday that I watched Marc and Jim walk down that aisle…) was Conor’s overall demeanor and the addition of guitarist David Rawlings. Oberst hasn’t looked this “into” a show in years. Was it the smaller stage? Was it being surrounded by friends and family (his pops was standing just a few feet away)? Was it all the booze? I’ll point to TWR’s overall vibe — it’s got a big-room feel but still seems remarkably intimate. Really, when was the last time (other than last week’s show at The Barley St.) that Oberst has been this close to a crowd? You could tell after the first few songs that he was letting it flow, at one point telling the audience that the play list had been thrown out the window.
Despite the fact that the place was crazy packed, something seemed oddly different right when I walked through the door. What’s that smell? Is that fresh air? Did TWR purchase a multi-million dollar air purification system? No. By order of the band, smoking wasn’t permitted at the show. I heard a few reasons for it, the most logical being that BE’s traveling sound guy suffers from severe asthma. I can see where that wouldn’t be a problem with the rest of the tour, as BE is playing mostly in theaters that don’t allow smoking. Had they allowed smoking last night, Conor would have been down at the morgue this morning identifying his sound guy’s body.
The other possible reason for the smoking ban — the high-dollar sound equipment that BE hauled in for the show. Outside the venue, I heard a couple gearheads going ga-ga over the microphone set up — “You know what those things cost?! That’s the real reason we’re out here smoking!” Well, maybe. There were a lot of microphones on stage, including a couple really fancy mics mounted to the cymbals on the drum set. I’m told the entire performance was recorded, which might have had something to do with it. Towers of equipment were stacked off to the side of stage right — cables and cabinets and lights, it looked like a construction site. One giant board did nothing but control the sound out of the stage monitors. I’m told a generator had to be brought in to run it all. It looked like enough shit to power a show at The Qwest Center. The result was a damn fine-sounding show, on par with a typical show at TWR (translation: It probably would have sounded just as good had they used the house sound).
I showed up at around 10:30. Simon Joyner already was well into his set. In fact, he was almost finished. Still, I was just in time for one of the evening’s highlights. Joyner’s band had left the stage and he was joined by Oberst on keyboards for one song — “Joy Division” off the landmark Joyner album The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll — my favorite song from my favorite Joyner album. I was told last night that someone is reissuing Cowardly Traveller on vinyl in the coming months. Seek it out and buy a record player if you don’t already have one. Oberst provided some vocal harmonies, then left the stage as the rest of Joyner’s band came back for a final tune — a roaring version of “Medicine Blues” off Skeleton Blues, my second favorite Joyner album. I felt like I was at a Country Joe and the Fish concert circa Woodstock. The crowd ate it up.
Bright Eyes came on at around 11. Forget the white suit for this tour. Instead, he was dressed in a black front-button long-underwear style shirt, his shoulder-length hair recently lopped off in a part-down-the-middle style reminiscent of Matthew Sweet circa 1994 (but done in black, of course).
I’ve seen Oberst perform maybe 20 times, probably more. Last night’s show was a throwback to the old, more laid-back days when he still played clubs. He was more relaxed and in tune with his band than at any large hall/theater shows he’s done around here over the past few years — he actually looked like he was enjoying himself. The set, which lasted around 90 minutes, was heavier than normal, in part because of the band. Rawlings is a bad-ass guitarist who knows how rip up a solo and loosen the restraints on Oberst’s more demure numbers, unlike Mogis, who instead generally adds delicate, colorful flourishes on guitar or pedal steel that never get in the way. Rawlings is just fine yanking the attention away from Conor, and that dynamic was a breath of fresh air.
As had been reported earlier, Mogis isn’t on this part of the current Bright Eyes tour. The rest of the band consisted of permanent BE member Nate Walcott on keyboards (and keytar), Clay Leverett on drums, and a bass player who I recognized but don’t know. Gillian Welch came on stage for a few songs, as did Simon. The first half of the set seemed somewhat scripted. It was the second half that obviously strayed, with Oberst dedicating most every song to someone in the audience. One example was a quick, half-ass take on a song from A Collection of Songs… (was it “Falling Out of Love at This Volume”?) played by request. You’re not going to hear that one played live again. The rest of the set was the usual stuff, the best tunes off Cassadaga, Lifted, and Wide Awake, along with a few new songs that sounded like songs off those three albums.
The highlight was the encore. Joining the band in his trademark sweater and glasses was Mike Mogis, playing along on a Tom Petty cover (“Walls”) and then joining the onslaught of guitar for the evening’s final song, a blistering, angry, violent anti-war rocker that recalled Neil Young at his most metal. Given the choice between Bright Eyes backed with three guitarists and Bright Eyes backed with an orchestra, I’ll take the three guitarists every time.
Want more details? Check out all the other reviews of the show online, including:
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Since this entry already is over a 1,100 words, I’m going to wait ’til tomorrow for the column and top-20 list. You dying to read it now? Go out and pick up a copy of The Reader.
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