It’s coming up on two years since the last time I saw Bright Eyes in concert, the former being a phenomenal experience at Worcester’s Palladium. That cathartic set featured a multitude of players and dug deep into the back catalogue. In the wake of this year’s modest Cassadaga, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect this time around. Would the set be heavy on the new tunes? If so, would it suck, or would those songs take on a new life in a live setting? Bright Eyes’ recent show at the University of Iowa’s Main Lounge politely sat somewhere in the middle.
The Sunday evening show began with “An Attempt to Tip the Scales,” signaling that he would at least halfheartedly refer to his pre-I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning era. The older track hardly set the tone for the evening, and while the student-dominated audience didn’t seem to recognize it, it was one of the finer songs of the evening. From the beginning of the show, it was obvious that the sound at the Main Lounge is inexcusably horrendous. This large, carpeted room is clearly not meant to host concerts. The acoustics are brutal, and the venue doesn't frequently host gigs. It didn’t help a performance that bristled with energy at times (“Another Traveling Song”) and likewise fell flat on certain songs (encore opener “Bowl of Oranges”).
Unlike a typical Bright Eyes experience, the performance consisted of the same five members throughout, including Mike Mogis and Nate Wolcott. It felt much more like a band than a collective, as opposed to last time when they began with a harpist and consistently featured dual drum sets. They strayed from anything overly dramatic. Even the normally purgative “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” lacked its traditional bite.
The biggest uproar was for Cassadaga’s lead single, “Four Winds,” which sounds uncannily like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It isn’t a bad song, but the reaction confirmed my suspicions: These folks clearly did not have a lengthy history with Bright Eyes. There was no uproar for “Method Acting.” Perhaps the anemic crowd could be blamed on the Sunday night show, but with no singing and very little swaying, it seemed that they just didn’t understand. In his defense, Oberst didn’t give in. He toted out the piano for a magnificent run through “Spring Cleaning,” off his split with Neva Dinova. Probably the most esoteric song of his set, it was also the best glimpse into the Bright Eyes of old.
No longer his reticent self, Mr. Oberst frequently talked to the crowd, asking how everyone was doing and lamenting the current political landscape and the war in Iraq. It was disorienting to see a highly interactive, almost (but not entirely) bubbly Oberst, but not because it was unexpected. After all, it would be unfair to expect him to be the nervous performer he once was now at the age of 27 and with several major tours under his belt. Instead, it was that he seemed forced in his mannerisms, as though he knew he was supposed to be the affable frontman now but had to struggle to make that a reality.
In fact, the whole concert felt like we were watching an artist at a crossroads, unsure of how to deal with both his own fame and his audience. Whether or not he truly wanted to play all of those songs was likewise mystifying. He seemed most at home in the final song, an unnamed, unrecognized tune that sounded more Desaparecidos than Bright Eyes. On this, he passionately yelped and furiously played, emphatically punctuating the performance by kicking all of his half-full booze cups from the top of his amp in a tremendous spray. When the final notes of his encore had rung out through the dull concert hall, I left thinking less about the performance I had just seen and wondering more where he would be heading next.