If I were a real boy, my show accounts would have to be tight. There’d be a word count. There’d be a deadline. And I’d have to write the shows upside down barely mentioning the opening acts. There’d be no time for meandering, and editors would strike all my personal exposition about the event, insisting I cover the bands and nothing else. I’m glad I’m not a real boy, because I’ve got tangents. You’ve been warned.
Before a note was played, this was a great show. Good street parking only a block or so from the venue, walked right up to the VIP line, no issues entering with my camera bag, on the guest list with photo pass as promised, vaccination status checked as advertised, and into the club within fifteen minutes. I felt like I hit the lottery. After checking in with friends running crowd control, I scanned out the audience. The reserved seating upstairs was full of folks in their 50s. The floor was younger, but still mid 30s and 40s. There were a few kids there happy to see Bright Eyes for the first time, but most of the audience were there to reconnect with a band from their formative years.
At 8:00 and precisely on-time, Hurray for the Riff Raff took the stage. Frontperson Alynda Segarra launched their un-introduced band into “Wolves.” The track is a mission statement that leads off the band’s 2022 concept album Life on Earth. All but one song of the night’s nine-song setlist would be pulled from this album, despite the project’s ten or so albums recorded over the last fifteen years. For logistical reasons, Segarra and their band were positioned at the back of the large stage which created a gulf between band and audience that Segarra worked to bridge all night. For the first few songs they roamed with microphone in hand, only retreating to their band to trigger the samples necessary to fill out the sound. The middle of the set tethered Segarra to a large hollowbody guitar. The trade paid off in “Rhododendron” where Segarra’s strumming freed the other guitarist to provide delightful slide accents. In closer “Rosemary Tears” he contributed keys along with multi-instrumentalist Miwi La Lupa (borrowed from the headliner) who provided brass accompaniment. But for most of the set, the backing trio of guitar, bass, and drums appeared as emotionless studio pros doing their job, leaving the spotlight for Segarra’s alto. It’s a fine voice, big when it needs to be, quivering when it should be, and best when allowed to flirt with a country twang. While Hurray for the Riff Raff has moved beyond their folky roots into shinning indie, the voice lives on. As does the battle. Their songs are political – sometimes with a capital P, sometimes in the “the personal is political” sense. But while their lyrics are often dark, there’s hope. In what was a set highlight, Segarra added a poem atop the simple percussion, synthesized swells, and sampled saxophone of “Nightqueen.” It seemed to be a prayer that leaned on the long history of life on earth, yet looked nervously at this moment. In it they implored, “oh, i want you to believe it / i want us to survive. / remember - you are precious cargo / on your journey.” This beautiful and battered poetry linked Segarra’s performance with Patti Smith and their shared common roots in New York’s complicated Lower East Side. I entered the show uninterested in Hurray, but left curious.
At 9:15 the members of Bright Eyes began appearing on stage. First a row of strings, then a row of brass, then I lost track of which instruments went with which members as they all paraded onto the stage. Frontperson Conor Oberst was the final (and eleventh) arrival. There should have been fourteen players, but Covid caused three subtractions, including Mike Mogis – the architect of the band’s sound, multi-instrumentalist, and as close to a co-founder as there is. The loss was felt, and the setlist juggled to accommodate his absence. Luckily, with nearly 25 years of material, and a large, well-rehearsed band of utility players, the ensemble still had plenty of top shelf options to choose from.
Unfortunately, Covid’s impact on the show went much deeper. This tour was conceived in 2020 to coincide with the release of Down in the Weeds, Where in the World Once Was. That album was a comeback of sorts – Oberst’s return to the ensemble after a nine-year solo sojourn. At the time, a large tour was planned to promote the album. Covid, of course, had other ideas. Now, two years later, the band are on the road, pushing an album that I had all but forgotten about. The night’s setlist, however, made the intent clear. Bright Eyes opened with “Dance and Sing” from that album. Six of the song’s siblings also featured during the band’s ample nineteen song setlist. The rest of the show was assembled by pulling a song or two from each of the band’s albums, with 2011’s The People’s Key getting an extra cut and 1998’s Letting off Happiness receiving none. Like any fan, I initially bristled that my preferred period received short shrift, but when one of my favorites was given its moment (“The Calendar Hung Itself…” from 2000’s Fever and Mirrors), a hard reckoning took place. Whether it was Mogis’ missing production or the fact that Oberst is no longer an angsty teenager, the performance felt cursory. While era-similar “Love I Don’t Have to Love” fared better, it was obvious that the rawest emotional moments didn’t play as well as the more refined socially and politically conscious ones that dominate his later, band-friendly output.
“Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)” is one that worked. When introducing the song, he asked the audience what they were doing in 2003. While starting to explain where he was, and the mind the birthed the protest song, he paused, then after a moment returned with a string of words that included “unjust war,” “bombing,” and several “yada yada”s. Oberst’s banter frequently jumped like this during the set. A thought that initially seemed relevant, quickly cut short upon suspecting it might be too sappy or obvious or personal to share. His mind rambles in line with the “next Bob Dylan” moniker that pummeled him in the early 2000s, but it’s songs like “Old Soul…” that tell linear stories ala Bruce Springsteen that voice his talent today.
Throughout the long set, Oberst proved that whether it be emotive piano ballads, melodic country rock, or NPR-friendly indie folk, he can do it all well. And his band was there to back him up in each invention – often playing a part in the evening’s most memorable moments, such as the trumpet player brought up for impromptu accompaniment in “The First Day of My Life” or the wailing sax that elevated “Ladder Song.” In nearly every song, keyboardist, trumpeter, and arranger Nate Walcott proved his importance to the band, adding a sophisticated lift to compositions big and small. Even Hurray’s Alynda Segarra got into the act when they were summoned to the stage for a rollicking version of “Haile Selassie.” The now-duet added air and light to the surging version recorded for The People’s Key. Bright Eyes is Conor Oberst, but the ensemble elevated everything.
The night concluded with a diverse three-song encore that spanned each of the styles Conor Oberst and his band do well. Oberst himself, however, was noticeably off during the encore. The slurs and stammers heard earlier in the set were escalated. The banter longer and more nonsensical. Crowd interaction was invited and dismissed. Other stories started and abandoned. Everything was now too loose. Those who have followed Conor Oberst the human know of his struggles with sobriety. Casual fans were getting a firsthand introduction. It was all too much for one attendee who tossed his just-purchased tour shirt toward the stage and stomped off. I wouldn’t go that far, but I talked to several fans who hoped Oberst was getting help.
As final song “One for You, One for Me” played out, I made a mad dash for the door, dragging Suzanne with me. On the way back to the car we talked about what worked, and what didn’t. After light pressure, she confessed that she was a fan – her obsession picking up when my interests began to wane. She was one of those “reconnect with a band from their formative years” fans that I unknowingly called out earlier. She was happy that was something for her at the show, as there was for me, and every fan regardless of when Bright Eyes came into their lives. But this wasn’t a nostalgia tour. This was the (albeit delayed) tour to promote the latest album from a band that continues to evolve as dictated by its troubled, mercurial, and immensely talented frontman.