Bright Eyes at Riverside Theater
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As evidenced by Bright Eyes’ new album, The People’s Key, Conor Oberst is anxious to claw his way out of the folkie pigeonhole. Neon mic stands and jittery tech-static video backdrops help his cause, but the key is the slick garage band Bright Eyes has become these days. The acoustic guitar only made a few appearances during Sunday night’s set at the Riverside Theater, and the dazzling array of keyboards and frequent dual-drummer attacks made for a polished rock show. Surprisingly, Oberst kept banter to a minimum for the first hour, and it seemed as if he had completely abandoned his intimate-storyteller roots.
Fortunately, almost everything sounded great. Oberst may be the mastermind, but Bright Eyes is undeniably a band. Studio duds like “Jejune Stars” and “Shell Games” burst to life in the live context. Nate Walcott’s importance can’t be overstated—he only grabbed the spotlight on trumpet solos, but his keyboard work was the glue holding the band together.
Still, Bright Eyes lives and dies by Oberst’s songs and charisma, and as he loosened up and got more talkative, the show improved drastically. Ripping on Scott Walker is a requirement for musicians visiting Wisconsin nowadays, but Oberst took it to new levels, railing on multiple occasions against the man he referred to as a “fucking Nazi creep,” and encouraging fans to egg Walker’s house. If nothing else, the rhetoric enhanced the power of songs like “Old Soul Song” and “Road To Joy,” which utterly brought the house down. But his most effective moment was the set closer, “Lua.” Featuring Oberst alone on acoustic guitar and a couple of Walcott horn solos, it was the simplest reminder of the stark beauty of Bright Eyes’ songs.
The fans played a major role as well. Oberst pulled the cheesy rock-star move of calling Milwaukee’s crowd the best he’d played to so far, but it was easy to believe him. The atmosphere bordered on rowdy as fans shouted and squealed in rapture, frequently jumping onstage. By the end of the night, as the band played “One For Me, One For You,” Oberst danced with multiple fans, and eventually the stage was overwhelmed by more bodies than security could hope to chase down. The performance already felt like a populist rally, and this was the inevitable, and perfect, ending.
Oberst offered a few well-deserved “goddamns” to opener Titus Andronicus, who played a rousing set of Americanized Pogues music. Frontman Patrick Stickles was a spastic lightning rod, climbing the speakers and onto the balcony. It was inspiring to see indie rockers who give absolutely everything they have to the performance; it was a heart-on-sleeve endurance test and a tough act to follow.