Review: Bright Eyes at Astor Theatre
Bright Eyes at Astor Theatre
w/ Marina Allen
Tuesday, October 31, 2023
Halloween means plenty to Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst. Growing up in Nebraska, it was his mum’s favourite annual holiday, one she prefers to Christmas or Thanksgiving.
That goes some of the way to explaining Oberst’s good spirits on Tuesday night. Clearly intoxicated, it ensured the banter was ridiculous and hilarious throughout, and thankfully didn’t impede his performance too much.
Dressed to impress, all five band members came out in Halloween garb, from animal masks to wizard outfits. Even support act Marina Allen arrived onstage in a Medusa crown and pink hair.
Allen is an exciting LA prospect whose best recordings recall Weyes Blood, but Tuesday found her solo with just a clean electric guitar as accompaniment. Whilst this meant her same-ish sounding 45-minute run time was too long to hold the crowd’s attention, there was enough to suggest watching this space, and certainly her poetic musings made her an appropriate choice given the night’s headliner.
Bright Eyes arrived onstage with Oberst looking like an evil emo elf, his long black hair falling out of a green hat and ensemble perpetuating a Peter Pan schtick that’s made it as far as his latest album. His mischievous humour also included frequent conversations with a stripper fairy (called Tink, obviously) while Down in a Rabbit Hole was Halloween-appropriate, albeit a “different kind of scary,” we were told, “…this is about smoking cocaine.” Dark!
As with Gold Mine Gutted and standout Hit the Switch, all originally from indietronica-influenced 2005 album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, these were given Companion-series treatment, translated as harmonica-laden folk that’s more effective live than recorded (the Companion series has seen reworked album tracks and new cuts compiled into a series of nine EPs to date).
It was a strange old setlist, to be honest. No Road to Joy, no Calendar Hung Itself, no Four Winds. To put it in perspective, only three of Bright Eyes’ top 10 songs from Spotify were included. Which isn’t always the best indicator, but deep cuts such as opener An Attempt to Tip the Scales, the lone number from 2000 breakthrough record Fevers and Mirrors, were far from obvious replacements.
This meant highlights came from unlikely places (a Warren Zevon cover, anyone?) and if you’d told me there would be three tracks from 2011’s oft-maligned The People’s Key, I would’ve noted them as potential bathroom breaks. But both Shell Games and the Companion rework of Jejune Stars were energetic standouts, while set closer Ladder Song saw Oberst on the piano for a quiet epic, lifted by bassist MiWi La Lupa’s turn on flugelhorn.
Along with Nate Walcott’s trumpet, these horn accompaniments made for some of the night’s best moments. And none was better than Lua, an evocative and haunting take on addiction that closed the night with a scene-stealing verse sung by drummer Maria Taylor.
Along with Lover I Don’t Have to Love, it completed an encore that nearly didn’t happen following a break of some half an hour while an ambulance was called to assist a punter who’d collapsed (it must be said that the moment was well-handled by all and we hope everyone is okay now).
Those expecting Bright Eyes to have evolved their live production to the degree of beautiful and sometimes slick sounding 2020 album Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was may have been taken aback by this ramshackle, rootsy and raw performance. If anything, they were sloppier than their last trip here in support of REM.
But that’s the charm of Conor Oberst, the (ever so slightly evil) emo elf who’s spent enough time digging around in the abyss that he’s got stories to tell and emotions to process. So what if the edges are a little frayed? What more could we want from one of the better folk acts of the noughties?
Photos by Linda Dunjey