Live Review: Bright Eyes at Westfair Amphiteater

I begin what seems like my 100th review of a Bright Eyes concert by saying that last Saturday night's performance at Westfair Amphitheater may have been his best. Simply put, Conor Oberst put on a rock concert. Not an indie-folk show; not an "intimate acoustic evening of personal confessions." A rock concert. As heavy a show as he's probably capable of or would ever want to do. You can say you witnessed Bright Eyes at its peak, if you were there. It's a shame so few people attended. It would be generous to say 500 were in the crowd by the time I arrived at Westfair at around 7:30 p.m. David Bazan aka Pedro the Lion was finishing a set of droll, dead-pan voiced indie rock songs; it was still light out when Jenny and Johnny hit the stage just after 8, playing what felt like the identical set played at their Waiting Room gig last September. A few words about the Westfair Amphitheater, a concert venue that's been around for years but that I've never stepped foot in, mainly because its usual programming involves Monsters of Rock and/or River-sponsored goon fests. To my knowledge Westfair has never hosted an indie rock show. Hopefully that will change in the future. The venue is a huge natural amphitheater, sort of like Memorial Park but with steeper slopes and a giant permanent cow palace-style stage. Fans can huddle on the concrete slab in front or set up camp on the grassy banks. Beer tents stood by the soundboard and along the ridge where food tents shoveled out pizza and nachos. "No Smoking" signs were posted along the perimeter fencing. Considerate smokers were herded to a tiny "smoking corral" at the top of the bowl, presumably away from the healthy people, while the rebels casually lit up throughout the compound, the blue-shirted security bulls casting a blind eye. A VIP area fenced off with fluorescent orange netting stood along the steep bank off stage right. Inside, members of the Saddle Creek family and their families, friends and bandmates chatted and drank beers -- gray-haired men mixed with skinny-jeaned hipsters greeting every visitor with deep hugs and smiles. Killing the love buzz from stage was surly "Johnny" Rice, who bragged about "throttling" an investment banker during a Christmas family gathering. "And I only wish I could extend the same to the motherf***ers at Goldman Sachs and ING." Please. Johnathan Rice is a lot of things, but he ain't a tough guy. Jenny and Johnny's 45-minute set closed with a Rilo Kiley song, "Silver Lining," that had little Jenny Lewis singing, "Hurray, hurray, I'm your silver lining / Hurray Hurray, but now I'm gold" as dusk set in. It was almost dark when Bright Eyes finally arrived. The crowd, which had ballooned to what looked like a little over 1,000, erupted when the stage lights dropped and a recording came on of crazy Denny Brewer of Refried Icecream doing his now famous spaceship rant that leads into "Firewall," the opening number on The People's Key and among only five songs performed from Bright Eyes' latest album. On stage, Oberst and his band glowed pink and purple, their microphone stands lit with strings of LED lights. Behind two glowing umbrella-like stage shells was a large JumboTron that showed video close-ups of a guitar strumming or drums or keyboards or colorful abstract images. Oberst was clearly in a good mood -- a rarity back in the old Wide Awake days. Looking natural with guitar in hand, he put it down only for one keyboard tune, and during "Approximate Sunlight," a low-slung rock song passing as a hip-hop number that saw Oberst strutting around stage like the whitest MC in America, selling each lyric with hand gestures in classic Team Rigge fashion. Awkward. He leaned over the edge of the stage spitting out lines, touching outstretched hands. Most of the set was a selection from albums past, including chestnuts "Falling Out of Love at This Volume," and "A Celebration Upon Completion," both from Bright Eyes' debut A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997. There were a few somber moments, but for the most part it was a heavy set driven by The Faint's Clark Baechle, the best drummer Oberst has ever played with. The guitars were huge and loud. If it had been recorded, this could have been Oberst's Live at Budokan. Critics around the country are selling it as Bright Eyes' farewell tour, and I'm still not sure why. Eyebrows were raised the first time Oberst mentioned he might retire the Bright Eyes moniker. I didn't believe it; I didn't care. Oberst is Bright Eyes. But I've seen his solo/Mystic Valley/Monsters of Folk outings. None of them had a tenth of the energy on stage Saturday night. Bright Eyes will always be Oberst's sweet spot although I'm not entirely sure why. Since Cassadaga, he has walked out on stage and stuck the landing every night. It helps that his Bright Eyes' oeuvre blows away his other projects' best songs. None of his solo output comes near BE classics like "Lover You Don't Have to Love" or "Lua" or "Waste of Paint." And despite being his weakest album since Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, The People's Key is still better than any of his solo records. After this endless tour finally ends, Conor Oberst may take a different guise, but we haven't seen the last of Bright Eyes. Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on the Omaha music scene. Check out Tim's daily music news updates at his website, lazy-i.com, or email him at lazy-i@thereader.com.

posted at 10:40 am
on Wednesday, June 08th, 2011

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