Live Review: Bright Eyes at Soma, September 21, 2011

Photo credit: Flickr user Two Sisters and a Show

I was fifteen when Bright Eyes released 2005’s I’m Wide Awake its Morning, and the band’s albums helped guide me through my tumultuous teenage years. At Soma on September 21, as kids too young to remember life before the MP3 lined up to buy vinyl and CD’s, it felt like high school all over again.

A surprising mix of generations showed up for Wednesday night’s show, and as frontman Conor Oberst took to the stage, fans greeted him with screams and cheers worthy of a teenage heartthrob. Oberst opened with “Take it Easy, Love Nothing,” the digitized story of losing one’s virginity to an older woman, followed by the unexpected “Falling Out of Love at This Volume”, off his debut album, A Collection of Songs. The backing band brought the classic track to life, adding a full sound that was absent on the low-fi original release.

As a band, Bright Eyes has long been known as a revolving door of talented musicians, and Wednesday’s lineup was no exception. Staple members Mike Mogis and Nate Wolcott were present, as well as other indie rock luminaries like Saddle Creek producer/Now It’s Overhead member Andy LeMaster on bass, The Mynabirds’ cute-as-a-button Laura Burhenn on vocals/keyboards/accordion, and The Faint’s Clark Baechle on drums.

Overall, the show’s setlist was a walking tour of Bright Eyes’ best work; for every song played from his new record, The People’s Key, there were at least four older songs. Oberst played fan favorites like “Four Winds” and the haunting “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” as well as newer cuts like the funky “Approximated Sunlight” and the heart-wrenching “Ladder Song.” He poured his heart into each performance, illuminating the life behind each detailed lyric.

Despite the sometimes dark subject matter, Oberst’s audience interactions showed his sweeter, slightly goofy side. His Midwestern drawl came out when expressing gratitude to his fans, when dedicating songs to his Aunt Debra (who was in attendance), and when telling fans to be kind to strangers before “Bowl of Oranges.” (That means you, 15-year-old girl who kicked me for being in her way.) He also elicited wild screams from female fans by baring his stomach and (fully clothed) backside during “Approximated Sunlight.”

As fun as those moments were, the highlight of the show came during the encore. Oberst returned to the stage suited up in one of his signature hoodies for the piano-tinged “Gold Mine Gutted.” Then, with a tympani roll by none other than 94/9’s Tim Pyles, the band broke out into Lifted’s epic ten-minute closer “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to be Loved),” followed by the sweeping intensity of “Road to Joy,” from I’m Wide Awake its Morning. Those last two songs demonstrated Oberst’s immense talent, raw energy, and soaring blood alcohol content.

But even under the influence, Oberst played with steady passion. He’s at his best when he’s clutching a red cup, jumping off drum sets and platforms, and adding interpretive dances to his lyrics. It doesn’t hurt that he’s backed by such amazing, multi-talented musicians — Mogis, Walcott, and company know how to wield a trumpet as confidently as they do a bass or keyboard.

After the show’s end, it was a pleasure to see the starry-eyed looks on teenage attendees’ faces — the same look I had after seeing Bright Eyes for the first time at Spreckles Theatre in 2005. It’s good to see that, after all that time, Conor Oberst is still here, with guitar in hand and hood up.

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