Live: Bright Eyes Give The People What They Want At Radio City
Bright Eyes/Superchunk/WILD FLAG Radio City Music Hall Tuesday, March 8
Better Than: Oh, come on. I'm not making a Roseland Ballroom joke.
We need to talk about Nate Walcott. You long ago made up your mind about Conor Oberst, and if you've never found in-house producer/utility man Mike Mogis' way with a sighing steel guitar entrancing, then you've perhaps at least seen a Bright Eyes press photo and thought that it was nice of Conor to let his cool uncle join the band. Walcott has been a touring member, usually keyboards and such, for much of Bright Eyes' existence, and the official third man since the release of 2007's Cassadaga. Next to a songwriter that's been named one of the best of his generation (and also plenty of less flattering things), and a man that produced a beloved Jenny Lewis album, and a performer with enough charisma to join the Monsters of Folk, Walcott must often feel unappreciated. But not last night.
Yes, let it be said that Walcott was in fine form at Radio City, and never better than when he added lush (in all senses of the term) trumpet accompaniment to "Lua," normally a bare-bones Bright Lights, Big City young-alcoholic tale (and probably the best New York song of recent times not written by James Murphy or Julian Casablancas) that absolutely didn't call out for accompaniment and would have collapsed under the weight of a less delicate player. Unfortunately, Walcott wasn't able to shine as brightly as possible last night, as the set list didn't include "Landlocked Blues," one of the finest State-Of-The-Nation tunes of last decade and home of the most moving horn solo in a rock song in about 15 years. (Though I see you, "Casimir Pulaski Day" and Belle and Sebastian's back catalog.) After Walcott lives a full, healthy life, a transcription of that horn solo should be etched onto his tombstone, so that all who pass by it will know that he was a great man. But his ability to make "Lua" even chillier without smothering that wispy cry for help is a commendable achievement.
No matter what Oberst did, everyone would have a gripe about last night's set list. My ongoing dream to hear "Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh" was dashed, but that was okay, because when "Poison Oak" came up I remembered how that song once made me deeply, pathetically miss a friend like the one described in that I'm Wide Awake It's Morning deep cut. (Youthful cross-dressing phase, seething anger at the government, prone to wanderlust. Sigh.) But at least he was trying. While Oberst would once force the crowd to either hear the album he was promoting in its near entirety (ill-advised given his solid but occasionally aimless new one, The People's Key) or play a set heavy on unreleased material that needed some workshopping, last night drew evenly from throughout his catalog. Even material from before his pre-Lifted breakout got airtime ("The Calendar Hung Itself," "Falling Out of Love at This Volume"), though it was the Lifted and Awake material that got the most reverent reaction from the crowd, with the mass sing-a-long of "Bowl of Oranges" being a particularly goosebump-worthy moment. The people, they love their "find beauty whereever you can" hymns.
Set-list magnanimity isn't the only recent change. Oberst is less drunk, too, usually, though he still looks like an awkward elementary-school kid with no friends when he wanders around the stage without a guitar. The backing band, which had swelled up to around 13 or so during the Cassadaga days, has shrunk to a relatively restrained but wholly efficient seven-piece (two drummers, one bassist, and two to three keyboards, depending on what Mogis was doing) that could handle the four basic Bright Eyes templates (symphonic, country-rock, new wave-influenced dance, ambient art thing) with aplomb. Now that the venues are bigger and the prices steeper, no one shows up to heckle Oberst, which was once a dependable part of the live experience. (There's not room to get into it here, but I saw shit get uncomfortably contentious at a Florida show around the start of the Iraq War. Oberst does like to run his mouth, and to his immense credit is not one to let beefy, drunken frat boys faze him.) He's also less prone to political ramblings, which a bit of a shame, because the protester's lament "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)" called out for a Wisconsin Union dedication.
Read into this what you will, but Oberst has made a habit of inviting alt icons to open Big Deal New York shows. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings did the honors during a run of summer shows at Town Hall in 2007, and later that year Thurston Moore opened Bright Eyes' Radio City debut. Superchunk got the honors last night. Somewhat surprisingly, they played mainly stuff from last year's Majesty Shredding in between classics like "Like a Fool" and "Detroit Has a Skyline." No one seemed to mind, as "Learned to Surf" and "Digging for Something" have energy and hooks to shame bands half their age, and provided plenty of opportunities for Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance to bounce around joyfully. After McCaughan noted that his parents were in the crowd and now was a great time to curse in front of them, Superchunk ended with the song you'd suspect they'd end with. About which, let it be said that times change. Lives change. But "Slack Motherfucker" is eternal.
Opening the show was WILD FLAG, the new outfit featuring ex-Sleater-Kinney warriors Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, former Helium frontwoman Mary Timony, and ex-Minders keyboardist Rebecca Cole. I still think it's unfair to apply too much critical analysis to a band still finding its feet: I mean, they haven't even recorded their debut yet, and it's within the realm of possibility that they'll scrap all their current material and go in a dubstep direction or something. That said, the highlights last night, barring a nimble "You're No Rock N Roll Fun"-style dance number at the end, were ambling psychedelic pop numbers filled with lulling harmonies (the backing vocals of Weiss and Cole were omnipresent throughout) that languidly build to an onslaught of in-the-red riffs and bombing-of-Dresden drum blasts reminiscent of Kinney's epic swan song The Woods. So if for some reason you didn't have high hopes for their debut, you can go ahead and have high hopes now. And it's good to see that Brownstein still does that shimmy she does before it's time to unleash hell.
Critical Bias: This is my 13th Oberst-related show, my fourth Brownstein/Weiss-related show, and my fourth McCaughan show.
Overheard: The gentlemen behind me discussed the last Bright Eyes Radio City Music Hall show. One fan mentioned the extended, then-unreleased, MC5-esque song that ended that set, and his quest to find it. I personally went through the same experience. The song, "Roosevelt Room," ended up on the second Oberst-and-friends solo album, Outer South, which frankly seems like a bit of waste, as that song was awesome and South is one of the more minor things our boy has ever done.
Random Notebook Dump: You just never get used to seeing John Norris at these things.
Set List (Bright Eyes) Firewall Jejune Stars Take It Easy (Love Nothing) Four Winds Bowl of Oranges We Are Nowhere and It's Now Shell Games Approximate Sunlight Arc of Time Falling Out of Love at This Volume Beginner's Mind Cartoon Blues Something Vague Hot Knives Nothing Gets Crossed Out A Machine Spiritual (In the People's Key) Old Soul Song Poison Oak The Calendar Hung Itself Lua
(Encore) Gold Mine Gutted Lover I Don't Have to Love Road To Joy One For Me, One For You
Set List (Superchunk) Learned to Surf Crossed Wires Detroit Has a Skyline Seed Toss My Gap Feels Weird Like a Fool Hello Hawk Digging for Something Slack Motherfucker
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