Bright Eyes' stop at the Uptown, in support of what's reportedly the last Bright Eyes album, The People's Key, opened as it should have: with cold electric strums and Conor Oberst's quavering voice. That's how the Omaha, Nebraska project began in 1995, in the Oberst family basement; and, on what's basically Bright Eyes' farewell tour, that's how it ended, too. (Ha: I believe in symmetry.)
I saw Bright Eyes with the Faint in 2005, at the same theater. It's incredible how much had changed in six years, though the same dusty velvet curtain hung above Oberst's head last night. First of all, Oberst wasn't visibly drunk. There was an orchestrated stage set: a filled-out band with six figures in the shadows. Oberst has traded Gretta Cohn's cello for synth, and the band has much more sinewy muscle, as evidenced by an ear-blasting wall of sound in the first number, which was also the first track on The People's Key, "Firewall."
"Hello my friends in Kansas City," Oberst greeted us. "We love this theater. We used to practice in this theater." It was good to see Oberst owning the stage again, whipping around the guitar and being a rock star. (Last time he was in town at the Beaumont in 2009, Oberst seemed hell-bent on obscuring his identity instead, doing a reclusive Bob Dylan impression under a scarecrow hat with his Mystic Valley Band.)
It's also a far cry from the last time I saw Bright Eyes appear on the Uptown's stage in 2005, when Oberst barely acknowledged the audience while tears streamed down his face. It seems as though, after much grappling internal struggle that his fans have been famously privy to, Oberst has finally settled into his own skin: he refused at least five times to apologize for various things gone awry on stage -- "Normally I'd apologize for that, but I won't" -- and rocked out unabashedly in front of a brightly-colored stage set, filled out with neon-colored synths and searing guitar solos. Maybe that's what this tour was about, after all: exorcising the demons. Last night, barely any of the poisonous, achingly beautiful melancholy that used to be Bright Eyes' signature sound clouded the band's new songs. Instead, the Uptown was filled with the sound of sweating the fever out.
Another sonic difference between new and old material, thrown into sharp relief by Bright Eyes' two-hour long set: Bright Eyes' wavering, moody rock is undeniably solid, but it doesn't have the same hard, focused edge as his older material, which seems much more galvanized by righteous anger. (Perhaps we can blame it on Oberst's self-described tortured youth / piss and vinegar.)
Several deep cuts were a surprise; like "Something Vague," off of 2000's Fevers and Mirrors. It was a song that I'd forgotten about, rooted deep in my adolescence. I have to imagine that I shared this emotion with several other audience members: The fact that Bright Eyes' set kicked off with largely unfamiliar songs -- after all, the album's only been out since February -- made the moments where Oberst and his band plucked out an older, much-loved tune that much more affecting, like an unexpected reunion with a dear friend.
Like any fresh, raw show, there were several flubbed moments: Oberst missed some lyrics and added syllables in older songs, and there were several false starts. One of my favorites: when Oberst, after playing and singing the first verse of a song, informed us that he actually had the capo on the wrong fret. "Oh, shit. Sorry, sorry. We're up here in the dark," he said. "We've gotta get back to the apology game." But, as Oberst himself acknowledged, "You guys are kind, Kansas heartland folk. You should understand," he said.
We did. And the Uptown's crowd cheered even louder when Oberst laid into Kansas' own Kris Kobach later in the evening. (Kobach is responsible for the anti-immigration legislation that Oberst protested with the Concert for Equality in Omaha, Nebraska last summer.)
"We're coming for you, motherfucker. I mean you, Kris Kobach. I believe in compassion, I believe in people, and I believe in a world where everyone has the things that make you human. Don't just clap -- vote these motherfuckers out of office," Oberst said venomously, before launching into "Old Soul Song (For a New World Order)."
He'd reprise this theme several times throughout the night, capping it off with this memorable gem: "Don't buy a T-shirt. Just tell your parents to vote that motherfucker out of office." (Oberst must have forgotten that, at age 31, most of his crowd members are now old enough to vote on their own.)
Sure, Oberst's political soapbox speeches were repetitive, but they were warranted: in a generation full of kids who are more concerned with snagging an iPhone 4 than the politics of their own home state -- a girl, mostly concerned with rubbing up on her older boyfriend, turned to me during one of Oberst's rants and asked, "Who's Kris Kobach?" -- a little pissed-off ranting does the body good.
After 24 songs, two-plus hours, and a beautiful, jazz-horn laden version of "Lua," a dark and twisted "Lover I Don't Have to Love" and an explosive, scathing "Road to Joy," Kansas City bid Bright Eyes -- and its Midwestern melancholy that we're all too familiar with -- farewell, with no regrets.
Overheard in the Crowd: The guy behind me was gigantic, wasted, and would not stop yelling. "Ten of 'em!" He shouted nonsensically, over the band and the crowd. "Everybody but ten of 'em!"
Critics' Notebook: "Hot Knives": A perfect, beautiful fusion of everything Bright Eyes ever was. Breathtaking euphoria, soaring guitar and harsh waves of noise, capped off by a howling sing-a-long chorus. I die.
Critics' Bias: I was once a proud member of Oberst's emo-hair-flip army.