BRIGHT EYES Live at Williamsburg Waterfront. Brooklyn NY. 8.31.11
Conor Oberst brought his long-running songwriting institution Bright Eyes to the banks of the East River on Wednesday night for a show at Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Waterfront. The show was part of a lengthy tour behind the group’s most recent studio album The People’s Key, released on Saddle Creek in February.
Oberst & Co. brought their tourmates Dr. Dog along as support, in addition to New Jersey’s Real Estate, who opened the show. Real Estate took the stage just as the sun was beginning to hang low in the sky over New York City, delivering their blissful summery surf pop to the growing crowd that was beginning to trickle in through the gates. It was a scorching hot day when I arrived at the Waterfront, but as soon as Real Estate began to play, it immediately felt as though a cool, localized breeze had descended on the venue and its patrons. Real Estate didn’t have much of a draw among the Bright Eyes crowd, but people seemed to enjoy them nonetheless. Perhaps they had foresight about this, as they took the opportunity to perform a set comprised almost entirely of unreleased material from their forthcoming sophomore album Days. Amidst all of the other Days songs, their jangly new single “It’s Real” sounded especially fantastic.
While I had seen Real Estate perform once before at B.O.M.B. Fest back in May, I had never seen Dr. Dog before, nor had I given them much of a serious listen. To be honest, up until this show, I had dismissed them as just another fairly inoffensive, middle-of-the-road indie rock band. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised and impressed when they began their set. They reminded me of a more clean-cut, less hackneyed version of bands like The Gaslight Anthem, with admirable musicality, a loose, jam-friendly easiness, and a little psychedelic pop for flavor. It’s an interesting package for sure, and the audience was really into it. I’ll definitely be giving this band more listens in the future.
Anyway, both opening bands got the crowd suitably warmed up for the headlining act. By the time the band took the stage, the cries of swooning teenage girls and disaffected teenage boys (along with those of some people who used to be teenage girls and boys) did not die down for at least a few solid minutes, provoking a particularly adorable looking Conor Oberst to sheepishly grin at the crowd as he and his bandmates were setting up. It was the first and possibly only time he or any of the other touring Bright Eyes members slipped up that night, which is remarkably impressive in retrospect, considering the scope and ambition of the show itself.
In total, the band performed 21 songs, including three encores and a lengthy band introduction segment, in which Conor played hype-man to the likes of his “main man”, trumpeter Nate Walcott and his “brother”, multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, whom he also stated was the best record producer ever. “Fuck Dr. Dre,” he said afterwards.
Many previous shows on the tour have seen the band open with “Firewall”, the dramatic opening track to The People’s Key, which was initially shocking to hear on record both for its bizarre spoken word introduction by Denny Brewer and for its cold atmosphere, which hangs over most of The People’s Key as a whole. Instead, the band chose to open with “Four Winds”, the countrified standout track from 2007’s Cassadaga. This choice makes sense on one level — “Four Winds” was a big hit for the band and is one of their definitive songs — but the track itself is pretty far removed from the direction that Bright Eyes seemed to be heading in with their latest album. In fact, the band didn’t even play a People’s Key song until five songs into the set. They pulled out gems from Lifted, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, including a peculiar slowed down version of “Bowl Of Oranges,” which became a great singalong in the live setting. When they finally did try a song from the new album, they pounded out the high-tempo electrified rocker ”Jejune Stars” with tenacity and unprecedented energy. The band seems to have come to terms with the new material over the course of the tour, and It was clear that while Oberst’s older work would forever have its place in the Bright Eyes canon, the new songs could be really fun too. I understood this as soon as I heard the blistering opening drum beats of “Jejune Stars”, and the crowd seemed to get it fairly quickly too. Actually, people got even more psyched up about The People’s Key’s “Shell Games” than they did about the song that came immediately before it, the hyper-emotive Lifted classic “Lover I Don’t Have To Love”. It was great seeing such a dedicated fanbase react to change in such an accepting way.
With some clever setlist choices, the newer tracks were incorporated into the set pretty smoothly. In order to help ease some of the transitions between gentle folk songs like the gorgeous “Landlocked Blues” from I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and the electronic-tinged People’s Key numbers, a healthy number of Digital Ash In A Digital Urn cuts were incorporated into the set. On a strictly musical level, The People’s Key has a lot in common with Digital Ash, and hearing the synth-led Digital Ash single “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” immediately before “Jejune Stars” really made those similarities stand out. “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” flowed into “Shell Games” pretty nicely too, since both songs are based around similar keyboard arrangements.
I mentioned earlier that I was impressed with the focused energy and the tightness of Conor and the band, but I’ll reiterate it here. This was easily the most professional sounding show I’ve ever been to, with not a single discernable musical error, mistake, or awkward moment. Every one of the band members played their instruments brilliantly and charismatically, sometimes (in the case of Mike Mogis in particular) switching up instruments between songs or even in the middle of songs but never sacrificing the quality of the songs themselves.
This is not to say, however, that the band was “professional” in all senses of that word. Between songs and while performing, Conor Oberst was endearingly boyish. He acted out his own songs with hand motions in between guitar strums, danced on top of the monitors, and came up with lyrical ad-libs on the fly that just happened to be funny or poignant enough to work. In “Hot Knives”, he threw the crowd for a loop by changing the very singable line “Yeah I’ve made love, Yeah I’ve been fucked, so what?” into the more amusing “Yeah I’ve made love wearing handcuffs, so what?”. During “Landlocked Blues”, Oberst threw in some much needed profanity to the fifth verse (“And that little fucker shot me dead!”). If I hadn’t known better, based on my impression of him at the show, I would never have been able to guess that he was actually 31 years old. Of course, people who actively dislike Bright Eyes might take this as a negative criticism. Ever since he first started Bright Eyes as a teenager, people have been telling Oberst to act his age, but for those of us who appreciate Conor and his distinctive personality, this playfulness was something to celebrate. It was just so damn cute.
One of the great things about seeing a band with such a deep and varied discography as that of Bright Eyes is that you never really know what you’re going to get. Sure, you’ll hear some hits (in this case, “Four Winds”, “Take It Easy”, and “Lover I Don’t Have To Love”) and some new songs (“Jejune Stars”, “Shell Games”, “Approximated Sunlight”), but beyond that, it’s up to whatever the band feels like playing. Conor definitely threw some surprises into the setlist on Wednesday night, most of which were incredibly rewarding to hear. The middle of the set was heavy on surprises, starting with the fantastic Four Winds EP track “Cartoon Blues”, which Oberst prefaced with a jab about Williamsburg hipsters. Immediately afterwards, touring keyboardist and backing vocalist Laura Burhenn stepped out from behind her synthesizer to sing lead vocals on the first verse of a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Wrecking Ball”. A couple songs later, the band surprised everyone by playing the eerie, southern gothic Fevers and Mirrors cut “Arienette”. They would later go on to play “The Calendar Hung Itself” from the same album, which was incredibly cathartic to shout along to even if it did feel a bit ridiculous at times.
Of course, if you were following my facebook or twitter feeds at any point between tuesday night and wednesday afternoon, you probably knew what I was really hoping to hear that night. The night before in Providence, Rhode Island, Bright Eyes played their 10 minute+ Lifted-closing masterpiece ”Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved)” live for the first time since 2002. My friend was there and said that it was basically the most amazing thing she had ever heard in her whole life as far as shows go. From the moment she told me about it I knew that if they played that song at the Brooklyn show, I could probably just die right there and be happy about it. Well, imagine the look on my face when I saw that one of the drumsets that was wheeled onstage had a gigantic timpani drum attached to it. I knew that the timpani drum could only be used for one thing, and that it was only a matter of time before they played my favorite Bright Eyes song ever.
The band exited the stage after the somber “Ladder Song”, only to return for an encore about fifteen minutes later with smiles on their faces. “Can I get a goddamn timpani roll?”, Oberst asked the drummer in a manner that was much calmer than how he sounds on the album version. I half expected him to say “please.” But once the band launched into the song — this amazing goddamn song — I had no doubts about anything. The only thing I can compare the experience to is the first time I heard Titus Andronicus’ “The Battle of Hampton Roads” live in July 2010, but even that seems to pale in comparison to just how important this performance was to me. I went absolutely crazy, shouting along to the lyrics throughout the entire duration of the lengthy song, and nearly everyone around me did the same. It was inspiring and intimidating but incredibly meaningful and real. After it was over, the rousing I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning closer ”Road To Joy” and the cheesy but endearing The People’s Key closer “One For You, One For Me” flew by in a daze. Pretty soon the band had left the stage, and I was still left wondering what the hell just happened to me two songs ago.
In the car on the way back, I got into a conversation with my cousin, who went to the show with me. I was talking to him about my relationship with Bright Eyes’ music, and how I felt that in just a few years, I may not be able to appreciate it in the same way anymore. Well, I’ve heard murmurings that The People’s Key is supposed to be the last Bright Eyes album, so perhaps if I ever do grow up and fly away from the musical nest that this band has crafted for me, they might not be around when I do. If this is the case, I certainly feel lucky to have seen them when I did. I know that it’s still going to be quite a while before I say goodbye to Bright Eyes (and probably even longer before I move on from Conor Oberst in general), but when and if that time comes, I think that I’ll be ready for it, having experienced this show. Until then, I’ll probably just keep reliving the moment when Conor Oberst told me that he made love wearing handcuffs. And most of the other moments from that night too.
Setlist - 8/31/11
- 1. Four Winds
- 2. Bowl Of Oranges
- 3. Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)
- 4. Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
- 5. Jejune Stars
- 6. Landlocked Blues
- 7. Lover I Don’t Have To Love
- 8. Shell Games
- 9. Approximated Sunlight
- 10. Cartoon Blues
- 11. Wrecking Ball (Gillian Welch cover)
- 12. Hot Knives
- 13. Arienette
- 14. Arc Of Time (Time Code)
- 15. I Believe In Symmetry
- 16. Another Travellin’ Song
- 17. The Calendar Hung Itself
- 18. Ladder Song
- 19. Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved) (Encore)
- 20. Road To Joy (Encore)
- 21. One For You, One For Me (Encore)
Check out the full set of photos from Wednesday night HERE at the Lewis and his Blog facebook page.
Photos: Bright Eyes live at Williamsburg Waterfront. Brooklyn NY. 8.31.11
Bright Eyes played in Brooklyn last night with support acts Real Estate and Dr. Dog, and I was there. Be sure to check out these photos and more, along with photos of the two opening acts, over at the Lewis and his Blog facebook page HERE. A full review of this show is coming early tomorrow.
edit: Click HERE to read my full review of this show.