Concert Reviews

Last Night: Bright Eyes at the Palladium Ballroom

Bright Eyes with First Aid Kit
Palladium Ballroom
Thursday, September 15, 2011

Better than: what everyone around the office predicted, including the gent who penned our preview in this week's paper.

Not long into Bright Eyes' opening salvo at the Palladium last night, a faithfully folksy version of "Four Winds," a young woman pushed through the edges of the crowd, which was packed tightly within the boundaries of the open space's big, padded beams.

She had come bearing shots -- glowing test tubes of mysterious booze -- but she had no takers. As she disappeared back into the crowd, clouds of pot smoke wafted in her vicinity. I couldn't see where she was headed, but I have to assume that one of the smoke clouds took her by the hand and escorted to the door, assuring her the whole way: "No really, honey, we got this."

It was that kind of night, and rightfully so. As Chris Parker pointed out in his preview this week, Conor Oberst, Bright Eyes' founder-frontman, has taken recently to heavier use of synths and foot pedals and even pop-veering hooks. But his allure remains mostly in his angsty storytelling and the native skill of him and his band.

Those things work better when they're given a little room to breathe.

After "Four Winds" came "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," augmented with some tight guitar tinkering and some tweaks to the song's typical rhythms. It earned one of the biggest sing-alongs of the night.

"Jejune Stars," the first song off of February's The People's Key, was a sped-up bit of existentialism that seemed to be met similarly to the album: decently enough, but not with enough momentum to earn a permanent slot in the band's setlists.

That wasn't the case for "Landlocked Blues," which started off as it always does, stripped to nothing but Oberst and guitar, punctuated by little high-pitched woos from the crowd and the singer's own little bursts of one-word anger. It built over time, calling up the swelling trumpet. On the cue of the narrator being shot dead by a tree branch -- in last night's version it was at the hands of some "little fucker" -- the rest of the band barreled in, efficient and on time and all pro as always. Encore aside, it was the night's peak.

There was a bit of a lull then, unless that many people just happened to decide it was time to freshen their beers all at once. But things came back to life with one of Oberst's few soliloquies, when he dedicated "Another Travelin' Song" to Clint Wheeler, who apparently lives in Dallas, maybe even cuts hair here, but is credited with playing the cowboy boots on the band's 2007 EP. The crowd liked that, as they did the more vintage Oberst that came with it -- big strumming, overflowing ashtrays, humming interstates.

The set ended quietly soon after, with Oberst alone at the keyboard for "Ladder Song," one of the better received tracks on The People's Key. Well, maybe he wasn't completely alone. This is how the song ends:

Will I know when it's finally done?
This whole life is a hallucination
You're not alone in anything
You're not alone in trying to be

After the crowd had a chance to soak in the night's overall message -- You're all gonna die, but especially me -- the band returned for its obligatory encore, and brought with it the two women of First Aid Kit, the Swedish folk duo Bright Eyes are traveling with. I'd missed their set, sadly, for a date with the critic on that other blog, but saw all I needed to know I love them both: During Bright Eyes' set, they'd been two of about five people in the crowd really dancing, all the way in the back by the sound guy. And when they took the stage for the encore opener, the 2004 wrist-slitter "Lua," they did it with the enthusiasm of two girls who'd been yanked on stage by Prince. And they can sing.

They can also play the shit out of the tambourine, as they did on the last song of the night, "Road to Joy," which seemed to bring all sorts of instrument-wielding strangers to the stage. It was as raucous an arrangement as they played all night, and one of the few to get the crowd actually moving, bouncing, stretching and overlapping their personal space with others'. Oberst's music typically doesn't move you until later, when it moves you to either to protest something or increase a prescription or two. This one pulled it off, though, waking up whatever sleepy bliss "Lua" or "Poison Oak" had left us in. Where's that shot girl when you need her?

Reporter's Notebook
Personal Bias: I write about music about once a year, almost always about a band or artist I'm especially fond of but that my more music-obsessed colleagues dismissed years before, if they ever liked them at all. This was no different.

By the Way: The sound was great, but the Palladium's not ideal for a show that involves a lot of standing around. The big, flat, wide space makes it hard to see from a lot of places, especially when you have my build, which is that of a very large badger.

Random Note: When he introduced "Haile Selassie," Oberst pointed out that "the actual Jesus was black, which they might not tell you in Texas." And when he introduced First Aid Kit, he kept pointing out that they come from a land of socialism, which we might not like. Because, you know, Texas. It was as if he thought he was performing at the Park Cities Chik-fil-A. They make Democrats in Omaha, right, Conor? Well, they make them here, too.

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Joe Tone
Contact: Joe Tone