There comes a time in every universally acclaimed, pathologically sensitive man’s life when he must jump the shark on his own messiah complex. After going along in life, writing astoundingly beautiful music, collecting the accolades of critics and lay music-listeners, and remaining just shy enough of the radar that he might retain all his indie glory, Conor Oberst has finally let his awesomeness wash over him and pickle his brains.
On Friday night, I and another Skeptic traveled to the cursed depths of Midtown to watch Bright Eyes play the first of seven sold-out shows at Town Hall. The opener was a real warm glass of milk of a band – Gillian Welch. Perhaps if I were lactose tolerant and liked folk music, my feelings might be a little bit different. But the crowd seemed to dig it and, later when she came back on to sing “Look at Miss Ohio” with Bright Eyes during their encore, I was slightly more into it.
But back to the main event. The stage was set with flowers and fences like a front yard in heaven or the deep south, or like a funeral. The band came on with each member dressed entirely in white. In the New York Times, Conor noted, “I was going for this just-stepped-off-the-yacht sort of vibe.” It struck me as a tad gimicky in the style of the White Stripes. They played all or nearly all of their newest album, Cassadaga. They also threw in some other songs for good measure: Lua, The Calendar Hung Itself, First Day Of My Life, and possibly a few more. While the Cassadaga songs are undeniably strong, they are not my favorite in the catalogue. I’m assuming that the set list will switch up a bit with the rest of the New York stint. I just happened to be there the first night and those are probably the most fun songs to play right now.
The band for this tour consisted of twelve members – two drummers, a small orchestra, a couple of guitarists, a trumpet/keyboard player, and Conor. There was also a “thirteenth member” who was a video artist providing what I think was the most innovative, interesting stage dressing I’d ever seen. Where pretty much every other show I’ve been to has mostly worked with automated stage lights, flashing and changing colors constantly, this show featured a video projection of simple things happening, created live by this artist. There was food coloring dropped into a glass of water, swirling out and getting bumped around by the vibrations of the music coming from the speakers. There were old photographs flipping by. There were random lines drawn by an Etch-A-Sketch, flowing with the meter of the song. There were markers coloring in between the lines formed by the molding on wall behind the stage. During the performance of “Lime Tree,” Conor asked for the stage to be as dark as possible. As the lights went out, the video projected a single tea light, whose flame was moved directly behind Conor. It gave the impression of an organic spot light, its edges blurring slightly with the breath of the man holding it. It was all so simple, but fascinating because it was formed extemporaneously, so entwined with each song. I spent more time watching that art than the band.
About halfway through the show, Lou Reed joined the band on stage to play “Waiting for the Man” and “Dirty Blvd.” To watch Lou Reed and Conor, standing side by side, was like watching night and day join forces to make the best day imaginable. Sure, they’re both sad bastards, known for their eloquently expressed angst. But where Conor is so young and kind of twitchy, Lou Reed makes rocks look like spring chickens and has a deep stillness and confidence. Where Conor wrestles so obviously with his own forming legend and his own belief that he is cosmically important, Lou Reed quite possibly is the Messiah and clearly doesn’t think it’s that big a deal. Conor seemed like a yipping puppy at his feet, but that seems about right.
While it’s interesting to watch a band work out its existential issues on stage, I’m looking forward to their continuing to grow up and accepting that you can be an amazing band and not be related to god. When they shed the white clothes. And their performance-crucifixion fantasy: