Nothing of that magnitude had happened in my lifetime in Alaska; it was an epiphany for me and fans of underground, independent and punk rock music — that a band actually cared enough to travel such a distance and sate our thirst for music far removed from the mainstream. (Ironically, I was escaping to Phoenix, where I could actually see bands on tour and make a career out of writing about music.)
I interviewed Fugazi for the Press while the band was here and got on the guest list for the show in Arizona a week and a half later. When I departed to begin my new life, (which, unbeknownst to me at the time, would consist of interviewing bands like Fugazi for the next dozen years) I was optimistic that Fugazi's visit to Anchorage would be the beginning of a trend. I hoped Anchorage wouldn't seem so far away to bands that toured through the Northwest. That there would finally be some sort of figurative land bridge connecting Alaska to the Lower 48 and its independent music scene.
That was an overly optimistic view, apparently.
Still, even now, 12 years later, while I'm up here taking a break from the brutal desert summer, I see hope. During the time I've been gone I've come up to Alaska separately with DJs Z-Trip and Radar, who brought world class turntablism to Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Girdwood. And I've discovered that indie-rap artists like Atmosphere, Del tha Funky Homosapien, and most recently, the Grouch and Zion I have put Alaska on their touring schedules.
But I've never been as hopeful or buoyant about the potential of Alaska being repatriated into the U.S. indie music microcosm as I was when I saw Bright Eyes perform at UAA's Wendy Williamson Auditorium last week.
"We come from a pretty desolate place too," songwriter and frontman Conor Oberst announced to the audience after playing "Four Winds," the first single from Bright Eyes' latest album Cassadaga.
He was speaking of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska, which spawned not only Bright Eyes but also Oberst's friends and compatriots — Cursive (who played here in February), the Faint, Lullaby for the Working Class — all of whom record for his hometown Saddle Creek label and interact artistically with one another. The announcement underlined what was happening in the Williamson Auditorium: Bright Eyes' trip here was, in effect, a diplomatic visit by an ambassador for indie-rock, a reminder that the rest of the U.S. isn't really that far away.
There may be no one better suited than Bright Eyes to serve the role of indie-rock's umbilical connection between Alaska and Outside. If you're not familiar with the band — Oberst's brainchild — their pathos was illustrated by an exchange with a female audience member: "I love you Conor!" she screamed during a quiet moment in the set. "I love you too," he replied.
Not long ago, in a segment aired on MTV entitled "Conor Oberst: Iconoclast, Optimist," the witless John Norris tells Oberst, "You've got to be true to yourself and what you're feeling." It's an ignorant remark because Oberst has made a career of baring his feelings. Oberst's songs – whether they're grounded in reality or not – are impassioned confessionals that bleed intimacy. The first song that propelled Bright Eyes and Oberst to notoriety was "Padraic My Prince," which the band played while here. The song is hyperbolic in its grasping for sympathy — "I had a brother once, who drowned in a bathtub, before he'd ever learned how to talk. And I don't know what his name was, but my mother does, I heard her say it once," he cries.
"Padraic My Prince" is from 1998's Letting Off the Happiness, Bright Eyes' first proper album (A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 preceded it). It should be noted that Oberst is the only constant member of Bright Eyes, though multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Mogis (who played pedal steel and guitar at the shows here) has been a ceaseless contributor. Oberst was only 18 when he released Letting Off the Happiness, and shortly after the album was released, I, along with countless others, followed his career closely as he continued to pour his emotions out in a quavering voice that always illuminated his passion. On the early recordings, Oberst often sounds close to crying.
Until 2000 Bright Eyes had been defined by Oberst's confessional lyricism, but that changed with the release that year of Fevers and Mirrors, a grandly composed album full of symbolism and despair, reflected by the complex instrumentation. Included on Fevers and Mirrors, after the song "An Attempt to Tip the Scales," is a faux interview (Oberst's part is voiced by the Faint's Todd Fink, the interviewer is Matt Silcock, a former member of Lullaby for the Working Class). The dialogue mocks the album itself, and Oberst's bleak artistic expression.
Interviewer: Now, you mentioned empathy for others, would you say that is what motivates you to make the music that you make?
Conor Oberst: No, not really. It's more a need for sympathy. I want people to feel sorry for me. I like the feel of the burn of the audiences' eyes on me when I'm whispering my darkest secrets.
When I was a kid, I used to carry this safety pin around with me, everywhere I went, in my pocket, and when people weren't paying enough attention to me, I'd dig it into my arm until I started crying. Everyone would stop what they were doing and ask me what was the matter.
Interviewer: You're telling me you're doing all this for attention?
Conor Oberst: No! I hate it when people look at me. I get nauseous. In fact, I could care less what people think about me.
"People tend to want to know about me; they seem obsessed with the biographical nature of the material," Oberst told me when I interviewed him for Phoenix New Times shortly after the record was released. Really though, Oberst was, and is, asking for such scrutiny when he records songs like "Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh," where he pleads, "There was once you said you hate my suffering/and you understood/and you'd take care of me/You'd always be there/well, where are you now?" Eventually he turns on himself, romanticizing his depression as he does throughout the record, "I sing and sing of awful things/the pleasure that my sadness brings/as my fingers press onto the strings/another clumsy chord."
Fevers and Mirrors was followed by Lifted or The Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground in 2002. It expanded Oberst's compositional parameters to include orchestral accompaniment, which required a touring band of about 15 people to translate appropriately onstage. If anyone was unconvinced of Oberst's genius at this point, all that was required to convert them was one listen to "Lover I Don't Have to Love," with its organ and strings and Oberst declaring, "I want a lover I don't have to love/I want a girl who's too sad to give a fuck/Where's the kid with the chemicals?
I thought he said he'd meet us here but I'm not sure."
That was when Oberst — who still to this day is on Saddle Creek, the hometown label he built with his childhood friends — saw Bright Eyes begin to appear in Rolling Stone and Spin, as well as the tabloids (a photo of him and Winona Ryder kissing appeared in People magazine). Still, Oberst kept his focus — he moved to New York City, writing and recording two entirely different albums — the folky, countrified (with some help from Emmylou Harris) I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and the electronic Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, that were released on the same day in January, 2005.
This philosophy matured on Cassadaga, released earlier this year. It too is countrified, and less wide-eyed and damaged than Oberst's early material. Plenty of the set list from the first show at Williamson was culled from this most recent album, though there were plenty of older tracks like "Method Acting" (from Lifted) and "An Attempt to Tip the Scales." All together, with the inclusion of those songs, "Padraic My Prince," and "Arc of Time" (from Digital Ash), it was a well-rounded offering to the audience members there to hear Bright Eyes live for the first time.
Oberst is such an emotionally naked artist, it seems appropriate that he's amongst the first to reach out to audiences in Alaska.
I've pondered whether this singular instance has again made me overly optimistic that Anchorage has a chance to become part of the indie-rock touring circuit. But after talking to Zac Clark, the UAA concert board coordinator who was responsible for the logistics of the show, I'm convinced it can come off.
Clark and UAA have an advantage in bringing up bands to Alaska that promoters don't — unlike for-profit promoters, they can be happy if they merely break even. It's still not easy though.
"Its daunting for them and for us," Clark tells me. "They're taking two days off around any fly-in date, flying all the crew up, all the equipment. We're booking hotel rooms, paying for flights. They definitely were able to meet us on many of those things, and cut us a deal to come up here because they wanted to."
Bright Eyes and Cursive share not only a record label, but a booking agent — Ground Control — which contacted Clark when Bright Eyes had a few dates in the Northwest empty on its tour. Cursive had a great time when the band was up here in February, and Bright Eyes wanted to follow suit. With any luck, this kind of domino effect will continue.
The night of the first Bright Eyes show 748 people filled the 900-person-capacity Williamson Auditorium; the second night sold out. Clark, like me, is optimistic that this bodes well for Anchorage's chances at becoming a regular stop for touring indie-rock bands. "We're not fortunate enough to live in a state where these acts drive through all the time, so we're striving to make them happen for these students as well," he tells me.
Bright Eyes proved worthy of their credentials as ambassadors for indie-rock while here; the band's cult status was apparent by the reaction of the crowd — most stared quietly in awe, as if they didn't know how to react. On Wednesday evening I saw two girls standing up dancing to "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will." from Lifted — but the rest of the audience remained practically shell-shocked.
Nebraska may be desolate like Alaska, but there are other similarities, too. A while ago Oberst told me, "I think in a town like Omaha, in a state like Nebraska, it makes the art community try harder. Maybe we need to prove ourselves a little more than a town like Athens or San Francisco."
Anchorage apparently has a good start proving itself — it's worthy of no small mention that Bright Eyes and the booking agent contacted UAA looking to come up here to play, not vice versa. Nor was the band's visit sheerly for novelty (like the case seemed to be with Fugazi); Bright Eyes wanted to come here because their homeys in Cursive had a good time here. Plus, the numbers played out attendance-wise — even if the kids here ought to know they shouldn't be afraid to dance.
The two Bright Eyes shows here may be the beginning of Anchorage proving itself as a viable venue for independent artists.
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