There's something about watching any band play Radio City Music Hall that inherently feels like a coronation, a moment to savor and take stock -- must be the vaulted ceilings and the faint musk of old Rockettes. But in the case of Bright Eyes, playing the first of two shows at the hallowed midtown Manhattan sanctuary, the pomp and circumstance felt apt, and earned.
This is Conor Oberst's first tour since reclaiming the Bright Eyes moniker, following two albums recorded under his Christian name -- a confusing chain of events by any measure, yet also a perfectly serviceable reminder that this is what good careers do: They contain twists and turns and identity crises and experiments and triumphs that may not manifest themselves as such until years after the fact.
And while Oberst, at 31, still looks barely old enough to drink, his storied recording career is, remarkably, of legal age (in South Carolina, anyway). His two-hour, 24-song set covered nearly all those twists, including seven selections from the just-released The People's Key and one (1995's "Falling Out of Love At This Volume") from when Bright Eyes was barely walking.
The only other constant in Bright Eyes is longtime collaborator Mike Mogis, one of five (and occasionally six, owing to an additional drummer) musicians backing Oberst on a stage bookended by two white bandshells and backed by a wide video screen. More informal and relaxed than at Bright Eyes' last major New York run for 2007's Cassadaga, which saw the band clad in white suits, Oberst is a comfortable and confident frontman if not necessarily a dynamic one. He is, truly, about his songs, and the pristine acoustics of the theater were perfectly suited to actually parsing lyrics.
While the "new Dylan" meme is long since passé, please pardon it being trotted out one more time: If crowd reaction to songs is a fair barometer of legacy, then 2005's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning may be Bright Eyes' Blonde on Blonde. "Poison Oak," "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," and "Old Soul Song" were standouts, while the stark, New York City bender ballad "Lua," which closed the set proper, commanded the sort of hushed revery that made people angrily shush chatterers a half dozen rows away.
And the "Let's fuck it up boys, make some noise!" exultation from the encore's blistering "Road to Joy" was its cathartic polar opposite. The People's Key's warm album-closer "One for You, One for Me" ended the show right at the venue's midnight curfew.
Oberst also has a healthy respect for his elders, as evidenced by the bill's inclusion of indie pacesetters Superchunk and Wild Flag. (Although it should be noted that the former's Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, as the heads of Merge Records, are technically Conor's bosses, having put out his last two solo records.) It's no slight to say that the best way to experience Superchunk might not be while reclining in a lushly appointed 6,000-seat theater whose ushers frown upon the stage, but if 10 people in there were moved enough by the career-spanning nine-song sampler to go buy an album, then it's a victory. And there's no denying the punk-rock thrill of hearing Mac befoul the sanctuary by crying "Slack motherfucker!" In front of his parents, no less.
As for Wild Flag, the vibe couldn't have been more different than this past weekend's raucous, overpacked Brooklyn debut shows, but it's safe to say that the yet-to-be-recorded debut from Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss and Helium's Mary Timony will be a highlight of the year when it finally materializes late this summer.
Bright Eyes setlist:
Take It Easy
Bowl of Oranges
We Are Nowhere
Arc of Time
Falling Out of Love
Nothing Gets Crossed Out
The People's Key
Old Soul Song
The Calendar Hung Itself
Road to Joy
One For You One For Me