Bright Eyes and special guests Japanese Breakfast and Lucy Dacus helped provide masked and vaccinated New Havenites with an evening of three massive indie rock performances on July 28 at Westville Music Bowl.
If there ever were a band to not only help tormented indie rock fans through a seemingly never-ending plague or to welcome us back to the art of concertgoing, it would be Bright Eyes.
With quivering, raspy and ardent vocals, guitar, mandolin, and keyboard support all while backed by a live orchestra, the beloved group headlined an evening of three indie rock acts at New Haven, CT’s Westville Music Bowl.
Bright Eyes’ lead singer and principal songwriter Conor Oberst is no stranger to lyrical themes of impending doom or existential dread. Whether in his many bands or solo records, he’s made a career ruminating over trauma and writing some of the most brutal, painstaking, and beautiful lyrics backed by complex, intricate instrumentals that have drawn indie rock, folk, and emo devotees to his shows for decades.
It seems that whether in his famed moniker and main group Bright Eyes, his solo career, or one of his other musical acts, he has chronicled the woes of quarantine life long before fans revisited his work while confined to their homes. Notably, as the sixth song on their setlist, Oberst crooned the lyrics to the 2000 track, “Something Vague” off the record Fevers & Mirrors, “And you’re not really sure / What you’re doing this for / But you need something to fill up the days / A few more hours.”
Last August, Bright Eyes released their mid-pandemic, aptly titled tenth studio record, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was. The band, composed of Oberst (vocals, guitar, piano, keyboards, drums, harmonica, percussion), Mike Mogis (electric guitar, mandolin, etc.), Nate Walcott (piano, keyboards, trumpet) are currently celebrating their latest release and reunion on tour along with a live chamber orchestra and drummer Jon Theodore, bassist Macey Taylor and guitarist Miwi LaLupa.
The show held the night before, July 27 at ARTPARK Ampitheater in Lewiston, NY was their first live show in nearly a decade after a nine-year hiatus. Their audience at this New Haven show were well aware of this, frequently vocalizing to the performers and each other about how much they had missed this band on tour, had longed for a new release, and we’re grateful to finally see them after a year without live music and with their tour dates postponed indefinitely.
Long before Bright Eyes began their 21-track set, indie singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus opened the night dressed in a blue button-up shirt, grey skirt, and her trademark red lipstick. The backing instruments that supported her vocals, including a drum set and keyboards, were adorned with blue roses and her latest album’s artwork. While attendees gathered in the general admission floor access area or in the bleacher seats, Dacus grabbed her heart-shaped sunglasses and new custom Fender to welcome everyone to what was largely a return to concerts and first show since the COVID-19 outbreak last March.
“Is this anyone’s first show since the pandemic?” Dacus asked everyone at the venue. A sea of astonished nods, resonant whistles, shouts of “yes” and hands in the air responded as she smiled and looked around at how many were sharing a cardinal moment together.
Dacus kicked off the night with a smooth-voiced, acoustic-electric set that supported her latest release and third studio album Home Video, including live renditions of confessional and buoyant lead singles “Hot & Heavy,” “Brando,” and “First Time.” She also played crowd-pleasing hits from her previous releases, including “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” off her debut record, No Burden before closing with the famed and critically acclaimed track, “Night Shift” off 2018’s Historian. She honored her traveling band members by initiating audience praise for each, including Dominic Angelella (bass), Jacob Blizard (guitar), Ricard Lagomasino (drums), and Sarah Goldstone (keyboards).
“Thank you so much for coming early,” Dacus said before deeming Bright Eyes her “heroes” and then introducing indie rock band Japanese Breakfast next to the stage. More people began to fill the general admission section as the band’s members Peter Bradley (guitar, synths), Deven Craige (bass) Craig Hendrix (drums) began setting up their equipment and amplifiers.
Overwhelming applause echoed throughout the arena once lead singer and songwriter Michelle Zauner ran out onto the stage, twirling, gliding, and dancing in a white lace dress and thigh-high black boots as she began her set with a rendition of “Paprika” off her June 2021 third album, Jubilee.
Equipped with her angelic soprano vocals and infectious energy, her commanding stage presence helped the crowd dance and sway to both her newer, upbeat tracks (including recent singles “Savage Good Boy,” and “Be Sweet) and older, cherished ballads such as “In Heaven” off the 2016 debut, Pyschopomp or “Road Head” off 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet.
After thanking the attendees for staying for her set, Zauner shared her enthusiasm for Bright Eyes’ upcoming performance. “I’m so excited,” she said with a smile as her bandmates began packing up their instruments. “I once wrote a review about Bright Eyes for my high school newspaper and I gave them a very positive review. It’s so amazing to open for them.”
After a short wait, the crowd grew larger, seemingly filling every conceivable space on the large field as a 10-person chamber orchestra began setting up and Bright Eyes’ members started entering one by one, much to their audience’s delight. Oberst walked onto the stage with a smile and longwave, expressing how much he “loved” and “missed” his fans during the group’s hiatus, and how “tonight” would be “so much fun.”
Wearing a black and white hoodie, dark jeans, and his trademark sneakers, he then began their set with a raucous and spirited performance of their recent track “Dance and Sing,” an exemplary opener with pandemic-appropriate lyrics about facing adversity and self-growth in discomfort. “Got to keep on going like it ain’t the end,” Oberst sang while moving across the stage and flinging his arms as his words resonated through the stadium. “Got to change like your life is depending on it / It’s a long time coming and we’re taking it in / What a wild ruse.”
If Bright Eyes had toured in a COVID-less 2020, they might have promoted more songs from their latest record. In these unprecedented and strangest times of live touring, the group chose to celebrate the entirety of their career, playing tracks from almost all of their ten albums, including major (and usually omitted) hits and ultimately pleasing newer and die-hard fans all the while.
Highlights from the all-encompassing, career-spanning set included several tracks off the band’s breakthrough 2002 record, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, from the unrestrained, tremulous “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” to the cheerful, classic Americana-esque ode to friendship, “Bowl of Oranges.” As for what is widely known as their most beloved and mainstream-recognized record, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, Oberst, and co. played the tumultuous and heartrending ballad, “Poison Oak” and the reflective and folky “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now.”
Midway through their set, Oberst stopped to dedicate “Another Travelin’ Song” to notable fellow musicians who could “relate” to its themes of being on the road and chasing a musical dream. “This next one goes out to Lucy Dacus and Japanese Breakfast,” Oberst said amidst applause, “for they know what it’s like to be in a traveling band.”
Whether featuring the entire band plus the orchestra or spotlighting Oberst alone at a piano or solely backed by a saxophonist, other notable additions include the twangy, violin-heavy and soulful “Four Winds” off 2007’s Cassadaga and the melancholic, piano-backed, contemplating and pensive “Ladder Song” off 2011’s The People’s Key.
For the final encore, Oberst returned to the stage for “First Day of My Life,” the often most popular and renowned track for the band with wholesome, heartfelt lyrics and a gentle acoustic strummed melody. The band closed with their final two performances of the night: “I Believe in Symmetry” and “Easy/ Lucky/ Free” from the well-known, fan-favorite record, 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
Overall, seeing Bright Eyes in 2021 might require masks, two shots to the arm, and being mindful of social distancing, but the beloved group still provides an experience no less comforting to those who questioned their existences long before a pandemic sent them to a life solely composed of Zoom screens and pajamas when even the idea of live shows was deemed impossible.
Catch Bright Eyes on their 2021 international tour and find dates and tickets here.