The People's Key
Author: S. Pajot
3/3/11 | Miami New Times | www.miaminewtimes.com | Live Show Preview
Better Than: Being abducted by extraterrestrials for an impromptu probe party.Maybe it's a product of extreme boredom and idle imagination. Or maybe spaceships find it easier to operate in those particular parts of the American continent that aren't perpetually plagued by light pollution. But whatever the case, the middle section of our country has been a constant wellspring of UFO sightings, crop circle discoveries, and other strange reports of unexplained interplanetary phenomena.And just like your average Midwesterner, one-time indie wunderkind, Bright Eyes frontman, and Omaha, Nebraska native Conor Oberst seems to possess a twinge of belief in beings from another planet. Well, even if belief is the wrong word, he's at least fascinated by the possibility of snake-skinned space creatures with giant reptile eyes.So last night's Bright Eyes U.S. tour opener at the Fillmore Miami Beach began with the same tripped-out spoken-word rant by Texas musician-slash-seer Randy Brewer that launches the band's newest album The People's Key."The Sumerian tablets, they say the same thing like Genesis said, that there were chariots of fire that came into the sky. And these beings got out of them," Brewer intones as if he's stoned on stardust. "And where they landed in is what the Bible calls the Garden of Eden."With that mystic, stargazing, stream-of-consciousness sermon splitting the silent darkness and rumbling out over the crowd, Oberst and his five bandmates -- most notably Bright Eyes regulars, guitarist Mike Mogis and keyboard player Nathaniel Walcott -- emerged in a red glow.They all took their spots between these two weird quarter-bandshell structures, pulsating with crimson light like a flying saucer's open doors. And then Oberst, suddenly caught in the spotlight, started strumming his electric guitar and singing the first few lines of "Firewall." Specks of light flickered across the giant LED screen behind him, exploding into sparks. "Walking through the land of tomorrow/Martian trinkets, plastic Apollos."In a way, the entire stage set looked like some kind of disassembled spaceship. And as the band shifted into another People's Key song ("Jejune Stars"), then through a couple of older cuts ("Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" and "Four Winds"), this ship's miscellaneous parts made themselves visible: eight wildly pivoting light cannons mounted atop aluminum pillars; iridescent sleeves wrapped tight around the mike stands; and big flash boxes vertically propped on the floor.Meannwhile, Bright Eyes' six-person crew manned their posts like shaggy emo sentries, heads down and slumped inside themselves, searching through the back catalog for a couple of semi-ancient artifacts ("Bowl of Oranges" and "We Are Nowhere and It's Now") before rearriving in the present with a pair of People's Key songs, "Shell Games" and "Approximate Sunlight."Dead center near the edge of the stage, Oberst alternated between acoustic and electric guitar with occasional side-trips to the keyboard. Sometimes he'd stand still with dark hair falling down his forehead, hiding his face. But then he'd throw his head back and explode into a casually theatrical outburst, pleading to the crowd with hands reaching toward some invisible black fire sky. Like his career and lyrics and persona, this performance was a study in ornately fragmented opposites.Remote yet confrontational, Oberst has always -- and especially now -- levied his huge musical and lyrical talents to create epic, overflowingly indeterminate moments of esthetic perfection. He's twisted together all kinds of conflicting ideas (sexual confession, vaguely political paranoia, Jah spiritualism, fuck-it-all whatever-ism, outer-space theology, etc.) into miraculously balanced albeit blurry wholes.And last night, as if illustrating his ability to control and shape contradiction, chaos, and sprawl (while saying whatever the hell he wants in the process), the Bright Eyes frontman introduced "Triple Spiral" with a few playfully sleazy questions: "Did anyone come here in a group of three tonight? Can we get a show of hands?" he wondered out loud. "Are any of you currently involved or will soon be involved in a threesome? Can we get a show of hands?"Then only a brief jag later, Oberst veered off into an uncensored political preamble to "Old Soul Song" and he didn't try to stylishly smudge his meaning at all. "I don't know if you guys watch the news or read the news," he said. "You shouldn't. It'll make you nauseous. But you should since it's actually happening."This next song was written right before we went to war for the second time in Iraq. We're still at war," he continued. "We're now about to start a third war in Libya, if you read the news -- not to mention the war in Pakistan, which they didn't even announce but they just dropped bombs and killed people in their houses."So now we're going into our fourth war and no one wants to talk about it. But it's happening. And if you guys give a shit, and you want to keep living and have children, and have them keep living, then you should get organized and do something about it ... Just like they're out in Egypt, that's what we should be doing right now."Now as unlikely as it sounds, this transition from sexy innuendo to revolutionary babble didn't seem strange. And neither did Bright Eyes' subsequent somersault back into a final spacey cluster of songs. Nor did ending the show with another galactic missive from Mr. Brewer."You understand when somebody's having a problem with your issues. But whatever trip they're having a problem with, you try to bring it together," Brewer's voice echoed as the place emptied. "You try not to cause division. You try to make it as a cosmos. It's a cosmos, then it unfolds like a flower. It just keeps unfolding. Time keeps moving on."Critic's NotebookOverheard in the Crowd: "Conor Oberst is a god sent to Earth from a faraway dustball called Awesome." "What? Are you high, dude?" "Uh, yeah."Random Detail: There was an odd symmetry to Bright Eyes' show. Two hours. 24 songs. Two albums. Ponder it.Bright Eyes Setlist:-"Firewall"-"Jejune Stars"-"Take It Easy (Love Nothing)"-"Four Winds"-"Bowl of Oranges"-"We Are Nowhere and It's Now"-"Shell Games"-"Approximate Sunlight"-"Hot Knives"-"Balance Beam"-"Poison Oak"-"Triple Spiral"-"Arc of Time"-"Beginner's Mind"-"Something Vague"-"Trees Get Wheeled"-"Old Soul Song"-"Nothing Gets Crossed Out"-"Calendar"-"Lua/Ladder Song"Encore-"Goldmine Gutted"-"Lover"-"Road to Joy"-"One for You, One for Me"