Bright Eyes, Saturday evening at Auditorium ShoresPhoto by Laura Fedele / Flickr wfuv

REVIEW: Bright Eyes SXSW 2011

Caitlin Wittlif of Austin Writes Music reviews not one but two Bright Eyes concerts from SXSW.

All things considered, I’m a new Bright Eyes fan. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones — one of the kids who got to hold tight to Conor Oberst’s brilliant imagery warbled out in his heartbreakingly emotive voice during their lonely high school years. I was just a lonely, nerdily academic high school kid getting her Kerry ’04 bumper sticker ripped off her truck and scattered threateningly across her dashboard. I heard a song or two — a cover of “Kathy With a K’s Song” by Jason Mraz, during my pop singer phase of life, and “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” that I was far too naive to appreciate. My fandom kicked into high gear after Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band performed at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2008, and I just happened to check them out. That was all I needed; I was sold.

Going into South by Southwest 2011, I’d seen Conor with the MVB 3 times (the best being a free gig on the 4th of July in New York City across from the Statue of Liberty), and I’d seen the Monsters of Folk four times, which allowed me to sample some Bright Eyes tunes with Oberst and Mike Mogis. But I’d never seen the real deal; I’d never experienced a full concert worth of unrequited love, of political unrest, of revolution and of unity.

I got a taste of all this on Friday at a surprise pop-up gig at the Austin Club Hotel. I showed up at 5:30pm, which I thought was a mere three hours early. It ended up being five, as AOL and T-Mobile fed us free ice cream sandwiches, gave us free water, and put free hats on our heads and posters in our hands. Apart from not knowing why we were held up for an extra unaccounted-for two hours, it was a very pleasant line experience. Unfortunately, for all of the patience of every hardcore fan in line with me, AOL sponsors were the favored attendees, and only 150 of us made it into that tiny performance space.

We all guessed at what the band would open with while we waited in line — would it be the first rack off of their new release (The People’s Key), “Firewall”? Would it be the first single from that album, “Shell Games”? Would it be one of his old hits, like “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”? When Oberst quietly took the small stage, he surprised us all with the understated Fevers & Mirrors track, “An Attempt to Tip the Scales”. The band sounded incredible as they erupted after the line, “so close to dying that I finally can start living.”

The set list was a smattering of songs from almost every Bright Eyes album, including “Hot Knives” from Cassadaga, “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” from Digital Ash In a Digital Urn, “Jejune Stars” and “Beginner’s Mind” from The People’s Key, “Bowl Of Oranges” from Lifted..., “The Calendar Hung Itself” from Fevers & Mirrors, “Poison Oak” and closer “Road to Joy” from I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, and even “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” from A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, the first-ever Bright Eyes release.

It was an intimate set, and felt off-the-cuff, practically piecemeal. Despite the spontaneous mood, the band sounded tight, at the very peak of performance and emotion. Oberst only hinted at the political unrest bubbling inside of him with a few choice words in between songs. The most notable was his introduction to “Beginner’s Mind,” when he spoke to the mixed room, “this next song is about trying to not become a cynical asshole. Tall order, I guess. But South by Southwest is a good place to explore that, because you have the greenest of the green and the most poisoned of the poisoned, walking next to each other.”

The tune I was most banking on was “Road to Joy;” my own business cards reference the tune, and I’ve been dying to experience it live since my fandom really bloomed. When they rolled it out at the end of their set, I was ecstatic. The size of the room seemed to contain its energy just a touch, but when Oberst came to the line bemoaning his voice, he was not shy about dropping an F-bomb (and neither were the fans in the crowd). Despite the our desperate pleas, there was no encore; it was ten songs and out, neat and tidy. You can relive this entire set here.

You’d think finally seeing a live Bright Eyes show would have me feeling satisfied, but it only whet my appetite. The next morning, I was more than ready for a second outdoor full-blown Bright Eyes performance at Austin’s beautiful Auditorium Shores, with the shining Austin city skyline at night substituting a backdrop Oberst described as “Disney World’s Haunted Mansion” the night before.

More than anything, these two back-to-back shows made me aware of how important a crowd is to a live show experience. It was a night-and-day difference, sharing a show with corporate types versus adoring, enthusiastic fans. I was treated to the latter on Saturday, and they enhanced the experience tenfold.

I showed up to this event just three and a half hours early, which allowed me to watch Kurt Vile, Man Man, Middle Brother and the Felice Brothers. All were talented and enjoyable, but ultimately just passed the time as we waited for our hero-poet to take the stage.

After the sun had gone down, Texan Denny Brewer’s familiar vocals rang out in the air, describing reptilian people and universal oneness. I ended up in the front of the crowd, and from where I was standing, it seemed that the crowd was mostly unfamiliar with The People’s Key (compared to the massive singalongs that occurred for songs from every other album). Still, this song — this opening — people knew. We were ready. When the band took the stage about two minutes in, it was to sincere, loving applause, energizing “Firewall,” which sounded as forewarning and destructive live as I had imagined. It burned in the Texas night, and Oberst’s energy increased exponentially in that outdoor space, finally given room to expand.

The Auditorium Shores set list included many more new tracks, like “Approximate Sunlight,” during which Oberst wandered around the stage, gesturing out to the crowd. One fan nearby joked, “It’s his rap song!” The wide variety of tunes the band performed definitely displayed their depth; there were country tunes, folk songs, electro-rock and near-hip hop jams, and the crowd sang along to literally every single one.

The entire show was solid, but there are individual moments that stick out strongly in my memory. As the band launched into “Something Vague,” one of the new friends I’d made turned to me and said, “oh my God, this is the saddest song of all time.” He then joined his voice in singing every lyric, and although there was no physical hugging, it felt like we were all together in that moment.

“No One Would Riot For Less” made a huge impression on me; in that live setting, with Oberst’s stark vocals facing the crowd dead on, the brevity of the lyrics about impending hell really hit me. I’d been thinking a lot all week about Japan, about nuclear meltdowns, about hurricanes, natural disasters and my own sense of helplessness. As Conor cried out, “Hold me now, hell is coming/Kiss my mouth, hell is here,” the words had never felt more apt.

Oberst is one of the braver voices we have in the public sphere. I knew I was going to cry at some point during the night, but I was surprised that it happened during “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order).” Throughout the evening, Oberst thanked us, calling us all his friends and keeping things warm and jovial. The only time he strayed from this banter was to talk about Libya. “I don’t know if y’all read the newspaper or whatever, or watch the television but today, on this very day, we started our third war that we’re in as a country right now. We started our third war. It’s kind of incredible. It doesn’t even matter anymore, right? No one even — it doesn’t even bother anyone. But today, on this very day, they dropped bombs from planes, and they landed on houses where children were asleep, and people died. That’s exactly what happened today in the country of Libya. Actually, four wars - Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan. Anything with a ‘stan’ at the end of it, we blow it up. So, I think it’s worth noting. Today, we murdered children, as a country. Sorry to bring it down like that.”

From here, the band launched into “Old Soul Song,” and the line, “and just when I get so desperate, I can’t speak!” raged from Oberst, frustrated and at his wit’s end. The singalong for this song felt different, too; our voices sounded close to frenzied as we all felt the weight of these words.

“Lua” was another tune I’d been eager to hear live, and stripped down with just Oberst on acoustic guitar and Nate Walcott on trumpet and keys, it was as beautiful and haunting as I could have hoped for. It was a great closer to the opening set, but this time, when the fans insisted on an encore, we weren’t going to let up until it happened. “Gold Mine Gutted” and classic “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” kicked it off, and then “Road to Joy” made a second, and much more explosive, appearance.

This was the “Road to Joy” I’d always wanted to hear; the one that got thousands of fists pumping in the air as we were instructed to “fuck it up, make some noise!” It was the “Road to Joy” that fell completely apart in perfect, cacophonous anarchy. It was the “Road to Joy” that held nothing back; what did we have to lose? Oberst had started losing his voice far earlier that night, so why not rip it to shreds? After an evening of raw emotions and political unrest, this was the catharsis we demanded. Rocking through it felt like running a marathon; all that was left was to cool down.

As Oberst talked about Libya earlier in the night, one young fan yelled, pleading and sincere, “what do we do? Tell us what to do!”

Oberst finally answered with the night’s closing song, “One for You, One for Me,” instructing us all to love each other and be good to each other. As soon as the band launched into the tune, the city of Austin took their cue and let hundreds of breathtaking fireworks loose in the sky. The band was apparently taken by surprise, as each member in turn spun around to watch the show; Oberst even skipped part of the opening verse to join the audience and just observe, looking every bit the bright-eyed Peter Pan he can sometimes transform into.

At the end of the song, drummer and Faint member Clark Baechle pulled out a camera to snap some shots of the colorful sky. Oberst, on the other hand, hopped down to the audience’s level and gave front-row fans really excellent, long, meaningful hugs. Denny Brewer’s final line, “Mercy,” was echoed on a loop, and we cheered until the stage completely quieted down.

For a show three years along my road of fandom, Bright Eyes met every possible expectation on a warm night in Austin, Texas. Oberst may be slowing breaking into his thirties, but the man has every bit of emotion he did when he was starting out as an angsty teenager. The difference is, where his energy was focused inwardly before, now he spreads it out, which really just makes it more powerful.

Watch the Auditorium Shores performance via NPR here.

Caitlin Wittlif / Austin Writes Music