Words: Lloyd Bolton
On a warm late-summer evening, I made the unusual trip westwards for a gig, sitting through the Picadilly Line all the way to Hammersmith and its [your-brand-name-here] Apollo. A 7.30 stage time for the support band is an act of war against the part-time reviewer needing to finish his day job and make his tea, so alas I only caught the last two songs from Penelope Isles. These seemed to set the scene nicely enough, creating an ethereal cavernous sound that became the venue and drew us into it. Their close grouping together on one part of the stage was a nice idea, giving the feeling we were happening upon a rehearsal in the group’s imaginary warehouse.
Not wanting to wear my legs out standing on the sloped periphery of the Apollo’s standing area, I moseyed on into the heart of the crowd, front and slightly to the right. From here I could survey the elaborate stage setup, featuring an appropriately wide range of instruments (including mandolin, lap steel, melodica and an orchestral octet), the band’s eye test backdrop, and a plush wolf, ‘Wolfy’ as it was later introduced, sat atop the keys setup.
With the playback of the ‘Pageturner’s Rag’ samples, the band took to the stage. Conor Oberst roamed urgently around the stage delivering opener ‘Dance and Sing’ with his signature intensity, shaking the mic between verses as if to get out the last drops of the music, and breaking into convulsive dance moves in longer breaks. On the mic his delivery is more hip-hop than emo indie rock, especially when he whips out his ‘infinite peace sign’ of four fingers flipped back and forth. They blasted through the opening numbers with the awesome force that defines their latest album ‘Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once’, sacrificing detail for the power of up to 15 musicians playing at once. The crowd was rapt, washed with this sound and gleaming, wanting more.
As Oberst pointed out, many people there had held on to these tickets since 2020, when the show was originally scheduled. The waiting certainly lent an added intensity to the joy of the occasion. “We’re gonna play a song off our new record” is synonymous with dips in excitement in the unfamiliarity of a new song, but as Oberst introduced ‘Mariana Trench’, it was met with the warm reception of a fan favourite, having been simmering on turntables for two years already.
Bright Eyes are at their best when they command the spectrum of dynamics, swirling between the epic and the intimate. This element was somewhat lacking in ‘Down in the Weeds…’ and that neglect rubbed off on the live show. The group’s strength in this respect was clear, however, in the commanding beauty of ‘Poison Oak’ and ‘The First Day of My Life’, which showed what most of the set was missing. The former restrained the group’s sound, drawing out the song of Mike Mogis’ lap steel and spotlighting Oberst’s lyricism.
Another outstanding feature of the show’s composition was the recurring use of samples between songs. This sort of thing always lends a layer of mystery to a show, taking the audience out of the concert hall but not quite landing them back into the real world. Yet it was a little frustrating that these moments were delivered on this occasion with a clean break from the music, stopping abruptly before the next song was initiated.
The performance transmitted the passionate intensity of the group’s music. The joy of Bright Eyes is their resistance to conventional perfectionism and professionalism. There was joy in every face I saw as the show came to a close. The inevitable encore opened with a beautiful rendition of ‘First Day of My Life’ performed by a stripped back ensemble of guitar, violin, keys and voice. Though this was a personal highlight, the return to the cathartic grandeur of most of the set with ‘One for You, One for Me’ formed a fitting closer, and the crowed glowed along the slow march back to the tube.