I walked into the Roxy and the theatre was silent and full. All eyes facing forward, everyone still. Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes wandered out holding a bottle of wine. The audience reacted like we were in church and Jesus himself had just entered stage right.
There something about going to an emo show that is like coming home.
The crowd is young and sincere and mindful of each others personal space. Nobody talks during the performance. Up front, the crowd of kids was trying to make sure everyone was comfortable and could see. There were a dozen band members on stage, trying to organize themselves, but you could hear a pin drop in between songs. The walls would shake with enthusiastic applause and then the crowd would fall silent, trembling with anticipation for the next song. Every once in a while, a choked cry from an anguished boy would slice through the air: “CONOR! We love you!”
It is always “we.”
I went up to the balcony to take photographs and I spotted the perfect alcove to shoot from — right above the stage with nothing in the way. But when I got closer, I saw that the little nook was full. Everyone in that section was sitting on the floor with ample space around them, so that they could all see and still be comfortable. There was a reverence among these kids, and I could tell they waited in line outside the theatre to get in and then went up there and staked out this perfect vantage spot. I stepped up to the entrance of the alcove and smiled hesitatingly at one of the girls who guarded the entryway, holding up my camera slightly. She guided me in and I took a few shots from the only place in the whole theatre with a view not sullied by heads or shoulders. After a minute or two, another girl behind me came up and gently put her hand on my arm and whispered, “I’m sorry — I can’t see.” So I apologize, took one more picture and left the balcony. It was that kind of show.
I saw Conor Oberst play solo at the Coolidge Corner Theatre a few years ago, and he tramped out barefoot with an acoustic guitar and sat in the middle of the empty stage on a wooden chair. He banged on the guitar and wailed for almost an hour and then stalked off stage with his dirty hair shielding us from his insanely intense eyes.
A small version of Bright Eyes played the Somerville Theatre in May, and that show was moving but differently so. It felt strange. Somerville Theatre is kind of old and weird anyway, with wrought iron owls and lush, heavy crushed red velvet curtains. Conor was raging around the stage in a wrinkled black suit that was too big for him, and his band consisted of four girls in vintage prom gowns. The lights were red and purple. I kept waiting for fake snow to accompany the waltzes he twirled out of the piano.
The Roxy was warm and intimate. Conor is violently temperamental so it’s hard to know what kind of show it’s going to be. But he was downright jolly Tuesday night. He sauntered out onstage with his open bottle of red wine and greeted us. There were so many people on stage it was like a party — and we were all invited. They played the new album in what I believe was its entirety, Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.
They also played some of my older favorites, including “Something Vague,” which I think is my favorite Bright Eyes song. The bottle of wine got progressively lighter, and Conor’s tongue slightly looser. Mid-song he abandoned the mic to retrieve his nearly-empty bottle. After taking a swig, he strummed a few messy chords with it on his guitar until the sax player yanked the bottle from his grip. Toward the end of the set, some of the players made their way off stage, and he says, “So we’re going to play a new song. We’ll probably fuck it up, but oh well. Here we go.” Hearing new material is like hanging out in his living room. He’ll start the song and then stop halfway and say, “Sorry — I fucked it up. Try it again. Two… three… four…” And the second time it will sound just as good.
The new album is brilliant, and easily one of the best I’ve heard this year. I have an overwhelming urge to detail how and why it is so groundbreaking and amazing, but it doesn’t really matter what I think. I suggest people sit down with headphones and listen to the album beginning to end. Hell, I recommend doing that with Fevers and Mirrors or Letting Off the Happiness as well. Sit and listen with an open mind. Each album is a story, in perfect order, from beginning to end. A cohesive whole. Listen to the lyrics, the classical influences, the dozens of instruments he plays, the ambient basement recording techniques, what this kid has seen in his 22 years. Take it in. And then you can decide if he makes you uncomfortable, if you squirm because it’s too intense or because his voice is grating and quivers uncontrollably, or because you are bored. I don’t think Bright Eyes is easily digested, and I certainly don’t think everyone would find it accessible or enjoyable. It may even be an acquired taste. But the music does speak to some people, and it speaks loudly. I guess I happen to be one of those people.
As the closing song, they played the epic “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to be Loved).” Before they started, Conor took a minute and put a hand up to the microphone and looked out at us from under his dark forelock. The audience completely stopped moving, waiting for him to speak. He said, “So listen, this next song is about how if this world continues to go in the direction it’s going, we’re going to be seriously fucked. And the only ones who can do anything about it are the intelligent and the young. So let’s make some changes.” And he smiled and everyone cheered and Bright Eyes broke out into the dark but celebratory tune about politics, suicide and network news.
After the show I’m glowing. I’m filled with the desire to do exactly what I love, because I know if I do, I’ve got a good chance of connecting with at least one other like-minded person. I am inspired to say fuck the critics, including my internal one, and follow what my heart tells me is the right direction to grow in. Cause I’m sure there was more than one person along the way telling this angry 22-year-old boy from Nebraska with the voice of a strangled dove that he wouldn’t amount to shit. But at his sold-out show he sings,
“I do not read the reviews. I am not singing for you.”