On Tuesday March 15, I finally got to see Bright Eyes play live. Though I’m not the most devoted fan of the Omaha troubadour Conor Oberst and his rotating backing band any more, the concert at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre definitely brought some much-needed nostalgia for late middle/early high school.
Bright Eyes began as the teenage bedroom recording project of Oberst in 1995 and in 1998 he released his first album under the Bright Eyes moniker, “A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997.”
Oberst’s creaking, quavering voice dominated these suitably emotional early recordings, and the reputation of a quiet, emotionally-charged songwriter has stuck with him ever since, regardless of how far his music has strayed from that original formula.
Despite the recent release “The People’s Key,” which Oberst has alluded to as his last Bright Eyes album, his hour-and-a-half set in Chicago focused on a wide range of his material — though he played no material from his Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band or Monsters of Folk side projects.
Flanked by a cast of six other musicians all somehow related to Oberst’s own Saddle Creek Records, Bright Eyes sounded more like a full-blown folk- and pop-influenced rock band than anything else.
Oberst’s set opened with the quasi-spiritual spoken word intro that kicks off “Firewall,” the first track on “The People’s Key.” Despite some missteps, the new record boasts a more expansive sonic range than previous Bright Eyes albums; unfortunately, the muddled live sound at the Riviera could never accurately capture this expanded sonic range. The charging “Jejune Stars” sounded muddled, and the six backing musicians often overpowered Oberst’s usually strong voice.
Oberst’s band contained two percussionists, a move that — as a percussionist myself — I usually support, but his songs don’t need the extra bombast. Bright Eyes’ music emphasizes swells and surges in emotion and dynamic, but the extra percussion seemed to clutter the band’s sound, a sound that needs no extra dressing up.
With the new album’s unique fusion of electronic pop and more traditional rock elements, I worried that Oberst and company would gloss over his more folk-influenced material, especially from his stunning 2005 album, “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.” Luckily, “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,” “Old Soul Song,” “Lua” and the stunning “Poison Oak” all made the cut that night.
Though songs like the charging “The Calendar Hung Itself” — a fiercely emotional early Bright Eyes tune – sounded overly bombastic with his large backing band, “Poison Oak” stood out as the night’s clear highlight.
A heartbreaking song, “Poison Oak” moved from the intimacy of the acoustic guitar-led opening to the catharsis of the final chorus, which featured the full band and spot-on group harmonies.
Even better, the fervent Oberst groupies in the front refrained from shouting the lyrics over Oberst and his guitar at the beginning, which really doesn’t suit some of his music to begin with.
Oberst seemed noticeably uncomfortable in these instances of audience sing-along: During “Lua,” he purposefully played with his phrasings in what seemed to be an attempt to confuse the crowd members singing along. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good live sing-along, but only if the song demands it.
Saddle Creek labelmates The Mynabirds opened the show, providing a solid, though not riveting, performance. Singer and bandleader Laura Burhenn commanded her band with a quiet confidence as they moved through a batch of pop songs from their new album, “What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood.”
The band moved from slower, more personal material to swooning 6/8 pop and upbeat four-on-the-floor dance numbers, making for a relatively diverse set. Burhenn’s voice stole the show, but her bandmates deserve praise for providing a solid backbone to her songs.
Perhaps more than anything else, this spring break concert provided a nice dose of nostalgia. The show highlighted Oberst’s considerable talents in songwriting and reminded me of some great tunes I’d forgotten about, but the set also acted as a confirmation that some of his songs don’t carry quite the same emotional impact they did during early high school. Even so, I dug out my copy of 2005’s “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” the next day.