The People's Key
Author: Jon Pareles
3/9/11 | New York Times | www.nytimes.com | Live Show Preview
The stage of Radio City Music Hall looked like a garish disco on Tuesday night, with a wide-screen video backdrop, eight tall towers for rotating lights, illuminated fabric canopies like minibandshells and frequent blasts of strobes and spotlights to keep the audience blinking and flinching. It was an unlikely, even bizarre, setting for songs about self-doubt, vulnerability, artistic ambition and a search for love and meaning: the songs Conor Oberst writes and sings in Bright Eyes, which was opening a sold-out two-night stand.Mr. Oberst, who has never been as guileless as his songs might suggest, was obviously up to something. Bright Eyes had chosen two opening bands that uphold the straightforwardness of 1990s indie-rock ? Wild Flag, which includes former leaders of the beloved bands Sleater-Kinney and Helium, and Superchunk ? as if to heighten the contrast between scruffiness and razzle-dazzle.He was facing an audience full of squealing women to whom he is an adorable lost boy ready to be nurtured: articulate and sensitive with a shaky voice, owning up to his flaws so apologetically that of course he's forgiven. But they didn't see much of him during the Bright Eyes set. Although he was standing at center stage, he was most often backlighted or in shadow, a singing silhouette. Until the end, when the visuals grew less relentless, there were more glimpses of his face between songs than during them. He was hiding in full view.Mr. Oberst, 31, has grown up in public; he released his first songs at 13. Bright Eyes, once his lo-fi home-recording project, has become a professional, full-bodied band. And while the core of Mr. Oberst's songs is folk-rock, Bright Eyes has delved into electronics, 1960s soul, orchestral pop and plush soft-rock. On recent Bright Eyes albums, including its new one, "The People's Key" (Saddle Creek), Mr. Oberst's songs are less diaristic than they once were. He sings about spiritual quests, ponders technology and slings Dylan-esque conundrums; he's more circumspect.Mr. Oberst and his longtime Bright Eyes collaborators, Mike Mogis (who played guitar and lap steel guitar onstage) and Nathaniel Wolcott (playing keyboards, trumpet and flugelhorn), have beefed up the production. "Jejune Stars," from the new album, started thumping, partway through, with a four-on-the-floor drumbeat and 1980s synthesizer tones suitable for the Radio City strobes.The generous two-hour set moved between the new Bright Eyes album and songs dating back to the '90s, filling out the old home-recorded arrangements with the capabilities of a six-member band. The electric guitar riffs were broader and cleaner, the beat heftier, the crescendos smoother in songs like "Falling Out of Love at This Volume," from the mid-'90s, and "Poison Oak," from 2005. The fragility and fervor were still in Mr. Oberst's voice, even as the music claimed a larger scale. But the concert had a strange, unsatisfying disconnect between the sound of the music and its flashy, defensive staging. It was as if Bright Eyes were delivering confessions and frailties via fire engine.