I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
The theme of the evening was definitely youth and being young.
Doors opened at the early hour of 7:00 p.m. for the Bright Eyes' show in Ottawa on June 12. The evening's venue, The Bronson Centre, is itself a community center located in a former high school that features a gigantic daisy on its marquee. A line of teenagers (not to mention a smattering of less-trusting parents) stretched around the block, all waiting to catch a glimpse of the eternally boyish Conor Oberst and his band.
As the auditorium began to fill, the masses of giggly girls in Sonic Youth t-shirts and their obnoxious dates in baseball caps felt strikingly appropriate for the setting. Even the bouncer sat on the edge of the stage, legs dangling, listlessly blowing bubbles with a wad of pink gum.
Despite being a seasoned writer and performer, Oberst's lean frame and sensitively-brush-the-bangs-from-his-eyes haircut make him innately appealing to this fan base. Perhaps it was the endless professions of love and the increasingly adamant song requests that caused Oberst to appear slightly uncomfortable on this night, as he turned in a competent but far from extraordinary performance.
With their instrumentation and arrangements, Bright Eyes tried to strike a balance between the style and sound of their two recent studio albums, the acoustic I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the electronic Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. The ensemble was large and boisterous, featuring various guitars, bass, two keyboards, fiddle and drums that played the songs with both a rock 'n' roll groove and a country twang.
The highlight of the performance was the band's wide-ranging set list. Early on, Oberst gently finger-picked versions of "Train Under Water" and "Poison Oak" from I'm Wide Awake, which quickly transformed the audience into a murmuring, around-the-campfire chorus. The solo version of "First Day of My Life" was charming as Oberst missed a note here and there on the guitar, but skillfully emoted the song's underlying tone of vulnerability.
The band, however, obviously preferred the up-tempo, raucous takes on "Another Traveling Song" and the powerfully morose "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," the mega-successful single off of Digital Ash. During these songs, Oberst pounded his foot on the stage, jumped up on the drum riser, and once almost knocked over his slide-guitar player during a solo. The band also revealed a new song, entitled "The Soul Singer and the Session Band," before finishing the initial set with the lullaby-to-induce-nightmares, "An Attempt to Tip the Scales," from 2000's Fevers & Mirrors.
Overall, however, the performance felt less than energetic and, at times, rather aloof. Other than his aside about the current Canadian tour, Oberst did little to forge a deeper connection with his adoring listeners. The band played only one short encore after a thunderous ovation, during which they wrapped up the show with a rousing sing-along with the night's opening act, Gruff Rhys. Another roar of applause ensued, but the band could not be coaxed back to the stage.
Rhys, a member of the indie band Super Furry Animals, played selections from his new album of quirky, psychedelic folk. The majority of his songs are in his native Welsh and feature a wide array of props and noisemakers, such as toy birds that chirp and an unidentifiable humming box. Despite the performance's eccentric nature, Rhys' songs have a strong, welcoming sense of melody that deserves a second listen.
This reporter, though, had come to see Bright Eyes and left feeling slightly disappointed. The band played for a mere hour and a half, during which time they avoided such signature songs as "Lua" and "When the President Talks to God."
The crowd, however, seemed content with the experience and cheerfully flowed out of the auditorium just before 10:30 p.m. They had actually shared a room with their angsty hero, and that's all that mattered. And, as an added bonus, they also had plenty of time left over to hangout with friends, relive the experience once or twice, and still be home in time to make curfew.
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