While it's not exclusively college students that fall in love with Bright Eyes, it is incredibly easy for college students to fall in love with Bright Eyes - sensitive quiet dude plays acoustic folky guitar while singing about the entire spectrum of angst that a dude coming of age some time between Y2K and toppling Saddam could feel? Sign me up!
No, literally sign me up. That was very much me, a college senior when I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, Bright Eyes' biggest and most successful album, was released. I'll always remember it for two reasons. Number one, that was the first album I ever bought and downloaded on iTunes (that sentence works better if you read it and imagine me as the guy from the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who drinks from the wrong cup and turns into a skeleton before your very eyes) (and if you don't get that reference, look it up because it's a great joke that I won't have wasted on you young people).
And second, it's a great fucking album.
Hitting me right in that sweet spot when I didn't know what I wanted to do when I graduated, just that it was going to be something Very Important. We were all living in those weird second George W Bush term years when no one was watching Arrested Development yet and lyrics like "I've got no plans and too much time/I feel too restless to unwind" spoke to my too-young-to-be-this-jaded heart. So while I don't have "EASY LUCKY FREE" tattooed on my forearm, I have been a Bright Eyes listener for close to 20 years, so this show was a big deal for me.
But it's not just a big deal for me. Every time Bright Eyes tours, it's a certified Big Deal.
Firmly entrenched as one of those bands that means a whole lot to a whole lot of people, every tour stop has legions of fans coming out of the woodwork for the Bright Eyes live experience. Throw in the fact that the band went on a break between 2012 and 2019 and released a comeback album in 2020 straight into the teeth of a global lockdown and you can see why demand the last few years has been at a fever pitch.
We really can't talk about Bright Eyes more without mentioning frontman Conor Oberst, and I may have set a new record by writing over 400 words about Bright Eyes before mentioning him by name. Multi-instrumentalist/producer Mike Mogis and arranger/composer/trumpet/piano player Nate Walcott may also be permanent members of the band, but singer/songwriter/guitarist Oberst is the heartbeat behind the band and the rocket that keeps their live shows blazing forward, for better or (rarely) worse.
Stopping at Chicago's absolutely stunning Salt Shed and bringing Maya Hawke and local husband and wife rock duo Tim Kinsella and Jenny Pulse in support, I could not wait to unwrap the box on this live experience and see what was waiting for me on the inside.
Tim Kinsella and Jenny Pulse are phenomenal musicians. Tim Kinsella and Jenny Pulse played a handful of songs opening the show. If that's just about the most vague thing you've read in a while, I don't blame you. But it's hard to put into words what their set was like. To start it felt like watching a lounge singer perform in a room full of instruments with a partner that was able to pick up and play every one of them depending on their mood. Things shifted and moved over the next half hour as bits of melodies and soundscapes were built and torn down, sometimes sounding like a structured song, and other times like an interlude between acts of a rock opera. I may not have always been able to tell where we were within each song, but it didn't stop me or the rest of the early-arriving crowd from grooving out.
I really don't want to do the whole "Billy Bob Thornton only wants to be interviewed about his music" thing (besides, Crashmore did it a million times better), but you can't ignore that Maya Hawke is best known by her legions of fans as Robin Buckley on Netflix's Stranger Things. But if she keeps up with performances like the one she delivered during this show, she's going to have her music career catch up with her acting career in no time. To say that her style is quiet and understated would be...well, an understatement. Delicately lit with a minimum of movement, her words barely registered into the mic as she chatted between songs that seemed so delicate that you worried they would dissolve completely before reaching your ears. Fans of Phoebe Bridgers and girl in red would do well to give her latest release, 2022's Moss, a listen.
Part of the mystique of going to a Bright Eyes show is that you truly don't know what you're going to get in so many ways it would put Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates metaphor to shame. For starters, outside of the trio of Oberst/Mogis/Walcott, the rest of the band tends to fluctuate (usually with a who's-who of Omaha indie rock stars). With their last tour, they brought along an entire orchestra which can really capture the sound and feel of their records, but limits the songs that can be performed with that huge of a backing (and can sometimes be a technical nightmare for a live perfectionist like Oberst, the type that's never been afraid to restart a song in concert if it's not feeling right). For this tour, Bright Eyes is joined by musicians they've worked with for quite some time in bassist Orenda Fink and drummer Maria Taylor, a welcome addition to fans of the band since the small, experienced quintet would be able to play just about any song from the band's extensive catalog, including their newly-issued set of 'companion EPs', six-track additions to the recent re-issues of their back catalogue.
Which brings us to the biggest and most mysterious piece of chocolate in the box: Which Conor Oberst are you going to get?
Part of the tradeoff of Oberst being able to reach down into the depths of his openly-discussed battles with substance abuse, depression and grief is that feelings like that aren't a faucet that can be turned on and off whenever convenient. The same thing that makes Oberst and Bright Eyes such a powerful force when performing live is the same thing that can shake Oberst's mood from one performance to the other - he's basically thinking and feeling out loud for 2+ hours onstage. Some nights you get funny and jovial Oberst, cracking jokes and sarcastic quips with bandmates. Sometimes he's a lot more introverted, almost seeming like the time between songs is something to shy away from and retreating to the safety of counting in the next tune.
So which Conor Oberst was the Chicago crowd treated to this evening? The answer is: yes.
Or more accurately, the answer is 'all of the above'. Whatever the MOST Conor Oberst that Conor Oberst can be, that's what we got in an absolutely marathon show that not only covered 20+ years of Bright Eyes music, but touched on every topic that seemed to float into Oberst's head, no matter how little it had to do with the actual music of the evening. "I don't need fucking Elon Musk to tell me how to tap my foot," Oberst mused out of nowhere during one of many between-song rants, "The first thing he does with his...$200 billion is launch his penis into space." But there was more on Oberst's mind than just phallic billionaire space races. He spilled his thoughts on a wide range of topics from his distaste for Nashville, how close Chicago and Omaha are geographically ("We're basically neighbors"), to a bit of self reflection ("I’m not an asshole, I just act like one sometimes...is there a difference?”).
But that's what you get when you put someone onstage and basically ask them to cut themselves open for our entertainment for 90+ minutes over and over and over. You don't just get the parts you want. You get EVERYTHING. But the tradeoff can be felt in their performance, where you can get the 'punk rock' version of Road to Joy to close out the main set that is an absolute insane cacophony of sound that one-ups the studio version in auditory madness. You get a performance of Another Travelin' Song that seems like it could go completely off the rails at any moment, yet still stays focused and barreling forward. You get a performance with momentum. Sometimes that momentum gets a little out in front of its wheels and a few lyrics are forgotten. Sometimes there's a 3 minute discussion about your own band's subreddit before launching into the next song.
That's what it means to experience a Bright Eyes live performance. You're in for an inch, in for a mile. You get everything, the songs and the thoughts. As the show wrapped just after midnight, the sellout crowd still packed the Salt Shed hanging on every note. They knew what they were signing up for and wouldn't change a single rambling, dancing, feeling second of the night.
Bright Eyes Setlist - The Salt Shed, Chicago 5.12.23
An Attempt to Tip the Scales
Gold Mine Gutted
Down in a Rabbit Hole
We Are Nowhere and It's Now
Double Joe (Simon Joyner cover)
Make a Plan to Love Me
Contrast and Compare
Persona non grata
Train Under Water
Hit the Switch
November (Azure Ray cover)
Another Travelin' Song
Wrecking Ball (Gillian Welch cover)
Road to Joy