NEW YORK, NY—If you’re going to a Bright Eyes concert, make sure you get there early. Discovering the opener’s frontman Conor Oberst brings along on each tour—Feist, The Magic Numbers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and The Faint just to name a few from recent tours—is often equally as rewarding as the headliner’s set. Bright Eyes’ 2007 tour finale Monday night at Radio City Music Hall was no exception, with fine sets from The Felice Brothers and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to begin the evening.
Despite powerful performances from both openers, the vast theater remained only partially filled until Oberst and his ever-rotating lineup of backup musicians took the stage a little after 10 p.m. This time around, fans were treated to a stripped- down version of Bright Eyes, weighing in at only five pieces (the last time the band played New York, the group consisted of roughly a dozen musicians in snow white suits).
Though this tour was ostensibly in support of Oberst’s latest release, the primarily alt-country Cassadaga, the show turned out to be a mixed bag of material from throughout the young songwriter’s career. The set opened with a string of five songs from four different albums, including Cassadaga’s first single, “Four Winds.” Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the night, “Four Winds” is a fantastic showcase for the 27-year-old’s lyrical prowess. “The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Qur’an is mute,” he sang with the fiery conviction of some renegade preacher. “If you burned them all together you’d get close to the truth.”
Oberst is a gifted lyricist and singer, but credit must also be given to multi-instrumentalist/producer Mike Mogis. Throughout the night, Mogis switched between mandolin, pedal steel, electric, and resonator guitars, allowing for a seamless blend of the musical styles Bright Eyes’ music encompasses. From the rockabilly of “Another Travelin’ Song” to the alt-country of “We Are Nowhere And It’s Now” to the electronic rock of “Arc Of Time,” Mogis’ contributions gave the varied set a cohesive feel.
If one song could have summed up the entire night, it was “Poison Oak.” From its tender, melancholy opening, the song snowballed into an emotional avalanche, crashing down on the audience and filling up the enormous hall by its close. Intense outbursts like the song’s last chorus have come to be a vocal trademark of Oberst, and as he matures as a performer and gains more control of his voice, he only becomes more powerful. As the song ended, he unplugged his guitar, strumming the last few chords acoustically to the silently spellbound audience in a gesture that bestowed an improbable intimacy upon the 6,000-seat theater.
Though Cassadaga is one of Bright Eyes’ finest works to date, it remains uncharacteristically quiet on the political front. After touring with Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. in the 2004 Vote for Change Tour and performing the provocative “When The President Talks To God” on national television, Oberst has gained a reputation for being one of the most politically outspoken songwriters of his generation. Noting to the audience that it was the very end of the tour, Oberst broke his recent musical silence on the subject with the final song of the night. “I don’t even like talking about it,” he told the crowd, “but there comes a breaking point, and I feel like we’re at that. I know I’m at that, and I hope you’re at that, as well.” The crowd erupted with cheers in response as Oberst continued to rail against the war in Iraq (“The only reason we’re at war is to make rich people richer”) and the current leadership of the country (“These people aren’t human beings