A different kind of crowd filtered into New York City’s legendary Radio City Music Hall on Nov. 19. The world-famous entertainment complex, decked out with Christmas trimmings, was a strange sight filled with a sea of bespectacled hipsters and peppered with all too many brace-faced, liquid eyeliner-loving teenyboppers towing parental escorts behind them. Clearly these people were not there to see the Rockettes.
Bright Eyes, the main musical outlet of Omaha indie-rock superstar Conor Oberst, was playing the last stop on a 26-date fall tour. As the crowd took its seats and waited for the main attraction, the Felice Brothers brought its own distinct and gritty blend of blues, soul, gospel and all else deep south Americana to the stage. Between James Felice’s mournful accordion and his brother Ian’s haggard voice and melancholy lyrics, one couldn’t help but fall under their spell.
After the Felice Brothers’ all-too-brief set, alternative rock legend Thurston Moore took the stage. With the experimental attitude of Sonic Youth, Moore and his backup band played a grungy, violin-heavy set, complete with lots of guitar feedback and dissonant notes.
Finally, as Oberst and his band took the stage, the crowd erupted in a cacophony of shrill screaming and enthusiastic applause. Long-time collaborators Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott were virtual one-man-bands, as Mogis played guitar, mandolin and steel pedal, and Walcott took care of the trumpet, piano and organ sections. They were joined by bassist Macey Taylor and drummer Clay Leverett.
The opener, “Another Travelin’ Song,” an upbeat country folk-rock tale of a touring band, was an appropriate choice as Bright Eyes had been on the road virtually nonstop since March. The band relied mostly on folksier fare from 2005’s sublime “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” and 2002’s “Lifted” or “The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground,” which propelled Oberst and company to notability.
Only two tracks from their latest release, 2007’s “Cassadaga,” were played: the punchy criticism of organized religion “Four Winds” and the piano-driven “If the Brakeman Turns My Way.”
More highlights of the evening included the piano ballad “Spring Cleaning,” a lesser-known track from Bright Eyes’ split release with Neva Dinova, and “Method Acting,” a neurotic march from
“Lifted.” The sunny piano accompaniment of “Bowl of Oranges” was a satisfying break from the rest of the heavier material.
Bright Eyes does pull off a crescendo exceedingly well – many of the songs began gently before swelling with a wave of volume and emotion. “We Are Nowhere, and It’s Now” started sweetly and lulling with Mogis’ mandolin, but grew more intense and emotional with every chorus.
During “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order),” Oberst’s signature warbling voice become more of a hoarse scream with each repetition of the line, “They went wild.” The effect was especially effective during “Poison Oak,” which started simply with acoustic strumming and a mournful steel pedal. By the time Oberst croaked, mid-song, “I never thought this life was possible, you’re the yellow bird that I’ve been waiting for,” his band exploded with instrumentation and the audience exploded with applause.
The encore featured the well-known “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” a bleak and desperate song about an encounter with a groupie, and “True Blue,” a strangely sweet B-side about depression. The Felice Brothers joined the band on stage for an excellent cover of Tom Petty’s “Walls.”
The final song of the evening was a surprising and distinctive change in tone. Oberst, who had been mostly silent in terms of on-stage banter, unleashed a brief politically-charged rant about war and greed. He then introduced this unreleased track as, “About the point when even peaceful people become violent.” The band then played a furious, searing protest song with lyrics so venomous it made 2005’s “When the President Talks to God” look like a love song.
“I know you like your apple pie, but the working poor you’ve been pissing on are doing double shifts tonight,” Oberst growled.
Despite a good performance from the band, Radio City Music Hall seemed too massive a venue to appropriately accommodate it. Oberst’s voice and his poignant lyrics often felt out of place and unnatural amplified over such a large space. The acoustics were otherwise beautiful, but the bass echoing off of the high ceiling became headache-inducing.
Furthermore, the sheer number of teenage girls in the audience screaming, “Have my babies, Conor!” was enough to ruin the show for anyone who was there for the music and not for the singer’s alleged tortured-artist sex appeal.
For future reference: Bright Eyes typically puts on a great show, provided that you catch them in the smallest venue possible (preferably 18 and up.) Also, check out the Felice Brothers, and definitely dust off your Sonic Youth CDs.