People were lining up for this show, the first Bright Eyes performance in Winnipeg, from around 5:30 pm. The floor seats were rush seating, which gave everyone the promise of seeing the band up close, so long as concertgoers managed to show up early enough. They advertised the show starting at 7:30, which would suggest that the doors would open an hour early. Wrong! The doors opened around 6:50.
As I briskly walked in, I noticed that the merchandise booth was completely empty. I confirmed with one of the security people that there was no merch on sale, which was a first for me. With the passionate crowd that showed up, surely they could have sold hundreds of t-shirts and hoodies.
I managed to sit in an aisle seat in the fourth row. I chose that seat so that I would have easy access to the stage, when they allowed us to move up for a closer view. It was interesting to hear the security staff indicate to the crowd who were about to storm the front of the stage that they would be clearing the floor after the opening act, Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals. Since all the seats on the floor were rush seating, that meant you would be giving up your seat to see the opening act, and then would have to find another seat when the floor was cleared. Several groups of people quickly realized the dilemma they faced and opted to return to their seats.
The mostly 20-something and younger crowd were in a good mood and gave opener Gruff Rhys a polite response as he performed alone with guitar, keyboards and quirky electronic devices designed to produce an atmosphere of bird sounds. Like Son of Dave, who I saw perform at the Winnipeg Folk Festival a while ago, Gruff would record himself as he sang and played instruments and then immediately play the recording back as he played and sang another part. It was fun and daring and easily won over the crowd.
After clearing the floor of fans, we sat and waited like caged animals for our chance to spring for the stage. All eyes were on Security for any sign that it was okay to fly out of our seats. There it was, a small nod after a woman approached the diminutive staff person guarding the aisle. Suddenly, there was a mad rush as bodies filled the path and sped by this guy, careful not to knock him down. I ended up inches from the stage, behind a couple of people.
When the lights went down, I could hear screams of "Oh, my God!" from some of the excited female fans. All of a sudden, we were squished together as one fan elbowed her way beside me with her small digital camera to get some closer shots of the band. We stood in front of the fiddle player, with Conor Oberst, the much celebrated singer-songwriter from Omaha, Nebraska, being about ten feet away in a mostly un-obstructed view.
The six-piece took to the stage around 8:40 pm with intense, countrified-indie rock. The fiddle player, Anton Patnzer, was spastic as the music erupted from him. Towards the end of the show, I was surprised that he and Oberst didn't collide as they ran around the middle section of the stage. The fourth track began with fuzzy guitar tones and I knew it would be one of their best known songs, the gem "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)." Oberst switched from acoustic to electric guitar a fair bit, often leaving the still playing instrument on a stand as it resonated out its final sounds.
Clearly, the songs of Bright Eyes are more in-depth, introspective and intelligent than a lot of the cookie-cutter pop that young people listen to these days. Conor Oberst has more in common with Bob Dylan and Neil Young than the typical musical spectrum that ends up on young people's playlists.
Fans shouted out requests so often that after one song, Oberst had to figure what to play next. He said that they were deviating from the set list. Oberst's closest connection to the audience came when he lowered the mike among it to allow some fans to finish singing the final chorus to "Happy Birthday" to Anton Patnzer. None of the band members shook hands with the crowd, which was probably just as well, since I could totally envision tiny Oberst being pulled over the stage and on to the floor by the throngs of excited fans.
Conor Oberst's vocals wouldn't have won him a spot on American Idol; with his somewhat husky, shaky style, however, he excels at conveying emotions and telling stories. His songs are more stories than simple, easily digestible pop and Oberst seems to more talk you through the stories more than sing in a more traditional style. Regardless of this analysis, Bright Eyes' quality songs won over the fans and should have a lot more people asking who this band is.
The show ended with two songs for the encore, with the first one being Oberst solo with an acoustic guitar, followed by a near-musical jam with the shaggy Gruff Rhys joining the band, with several people taking turns at lead vocals, for a sing-along.
Hopefully, the next time they play Winnipeg, they'll bring some merchandise. My rating for this show is 3.5/5.
June 10, Burton Cummings Theatre