Looking back looks oh so good on Bright Eyes at LA’s Greek Theatre

Bright EyesBy Rochelle Shipman //

Bright Eyes with Cate Le Bon //
Greek Theatre – Los Angeles
June 23rd, 2022 //

There’s good news, and there’s bad news. The bad news is that Americans with uteruses lost the right to make a decision about their own bodies last week. The good news is that Conor Oberst is OK. And therefore, somehow, some day, some way … we will be OK, too.

Bright Eyes haven’t exactly had a smooth start to their pandemic-plagued “Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was Tour” across the U.S., with Oberst hurting his wrist from a fall during their Detroit gig early on the first leg. Concerned fans came out of the internet woodwork shortly thereafter, nearly cataloging his onstage behavior night to night, wondering if his well-documented demons would let him make it through the next show. The tour’s second leg kicked off this month with markedly less hitches, and by the time Oberst and his sidekicks made it to LA (“a second home for many of us” as he noted), they delivered a performance that was nothing short of astounding.

With Bright Eyes fresh off the release of their first three companion EPs in May, it’s clear that looking back looks good on them. The band was tighter than ever, with Nate Walcott perched on his rightful podium of keyboards and strings and Mike Mogis flanking Oberst as his literal righthand man. They opened with “Dance and Sing” before testing the fabric of the crowd’s emotions with a one-two punch featuring “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” followed immediately by “Bowl of Oranges”. (Personally, I am writing this from the grave as a result.)

Bright Eyes weaved in a rightful amount of newer material, finally offering 2020’s Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was the proper live show it deserved. And it genuinely looked like they had a blast. Oberst showed off some new dance moves he must have learned while in lockdown, thrashing about the stage with a single earring and a glittery black guitar. The entire show carried an underlying adrenaline rush, quiet but consistent, threatening to burst through.

However, nothing set the crowd off quite like the older tunes, especially after two and a half years at home isolated from society. We were treated to classics like “Old Soul Song”, “Falling Out of Love at This Volume”, “Poison Oak”, “Another Travelin’ Song” and even “Something Vague” as well as “Neely O’Hara”. As if that wasn’t enough, they hit us with an unbelievable encore led by “First Day of My Life” and “I Believe in Symmetry” before closing a perfect night with “One for You, One for Me”.

Bright Eyes

There is something about seeing a band you never thought you’d get to see again — an anticipation and unspoken electrical tension lingers before the music actually starts. It melts away into an elated disbelief after about 4-5 songs as wide-eyed fans exchange toothy grins with perfect strangers, saying everything without having to say anything at all. Everyone at the Greek Theatre held that night close with the same precious care, still unable to believe to some degree that we were back together again, finally back with Bright Eyes. You could have heard a pin — or in California, a vape pen — drop during “Poison Oak” off 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning as screams of “I love you, Conor!” filled the air during breaks in the action. Oberst moved about the stage with a ferociousness that made it difficult to tell just how genuine his own enjoyment was, but he did touch upon the importance of us treating each other with care and kindness while clasping hands with some stunned fans in the front row. At one point, he even made a joke about having a stock of “cry tests” on the group’s tour bus with their COVID-19 tests. If anyone in the band isn’t sad enough he trolled, they’re fired.

As far as Bright Eyes shows go, this was one for the books. It was so solid, in fact, that I found myself getting angry during it. “Who are these people online to question Oberst, to act as though he was ever pretending to be someone he’s not, here in the year 2022?” I pondered. Sure, he slurred a few words throughout the set, but I can’t recall a show in the last 15 years where he didn’t. As a lifelong Bright Eyes fan, yes, there are days and moments I lose worrying about his own wellbeing, but then I stop myself. I remember that’s part of what I signed up for as a fan of Oberst’s work, and that listening closely to any album he’s released reminds me it’s actually par for the course. I often try to consider the fact that quite possibly those faceless fans haven’t been lucky to see him live as many times as I have. Or perhaps they found him a bit more recently via Phoebe Bridgers, unaware just how deep Oberst’s emotional register actually goes. Maybe they just don’t realize that he’s singing pages out of his personal diary.

Here’s the thing about Oberst: the man is depressed. At the age of 42, he has never even pretended that he’s not depressed. He was born that way and has lived that way for decades, documenting it in plain sight. A few years ago, he went through a divorce, suddenly lost a brother and battled some health issues. Then came the pandemic, which halted life in a very specific way for musicians in particular. We were all pretty isolated for about two years, which is the last thing a depressed person needs no matter what they might say. And despite all of that depression, he still drags himself onstage night after night, year after year, to tell us in person that he’s depressed. As someone myself with a crippling case of lifelong depression, I can honestly say I don’t know how he does it.

The fact that Oberst has made it through alive to this point is an achievement in and of itself. Simply the fact that he’s still here at all, after the past few years of hell we have all collectively gone through, is an accomplishment deserving of flowers — bouquets on bouquets that we must hand out while the native of Nebraska is still here to receive them.

It’s safe to say that Oberst is doing phenomenal, all things considered. I have to admit his worldwide web warriors had me a little worried before this show, but he proved them wrong. Bright Eyes will be here to serenade us through much, much worse for years to come. After all, Oberst said it himself by quipping near the end of the night: “We’ll be back, don’t you worry … like a real bad cancer.”

Setlist:
Dance and Sing
Lover I Don’t Have to Love
Bowl of Oranges
Mariana Trench
One and Done (with “Whole Lotta Love” drum outro tease)
Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)
Jejune Stars
No One Would Riot for Less
Falling Out of Love at This Volume
Persona non grata
Something Vague
Stairwell Song
Neely O’Hara
Poison Oak
Another Travelin’ Song
Comet Song

Encore:
First Day of My Life
I Believe in Symmetry
One for You, One for Me

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