Bright Eyes, The Mountain Goats
Aug. 5, Egyptian Room at Old National Centre
Conor Oberst is a bit of a ham.
Not in a bad way, necessarily. We already knew the Bright Eyes singer for his quivering, emotive voice, perched just on the edge of a breakdown in much the same way as Italian opera singers of the early 20th century sounded like they were perennially on the cusp of tears. So that's hammy enough, though his voice doesn't sound quite as precious or calculated at a live show, when that vibrato isn't right in one's headphones.
But there's more in the way of melodrama: at the first-ever Indianapolis performance by Bright Eyes (at least according to Oberst), we learned that Oberst likes to act out some of his lyrics, covering his eyes and cinching his fingers to match the lyric "The crowd was small and mostly blind" from "Approximated Sunlight," for instance, along with other charades-style gestures.
And he closed Thursday night's two-and-a-half hour concert at the Egyptian Room by introducing each member of the seven-piece band to a funk soundtrack, and delivering a short sermon along the lines of "Fuck the government and love each other" to the modest but enthusiastic crowd.
It might have been an overlong show for the unconverted, but one figures that there was a satisfying mix of sing-a-long favorites and new stuff for those already loyal to Oberst and his nearly two-decade old recording project, which started as a one-man show before expanding a few years back into a full-on band.
The seven-piece group included two drummers, which may have been one too many — there wasn't much in the way of polyrhythms, and things got a little muddy when both played at full volume at the same time. The band's two permanent members were there — Nate Walcott, whose better-than-average work on trumpet and fluegelhorn drew some surprisingly big cheers, and guitarist and long-time producer Mike Mogis — along with Laura Burhenn (Mynabirds), who turned in pretty good vocals on a cover of Gillian Welch's "Wrecking Ball," handled as a duet by her and Oberst.
An acoustic guitar and fluegelhorn treatment of "Lua" was one of the show's highlights; coming after nearly two hours of full-band work, it was refreshing to hear Oberst in a stripped-down setting, the arrangement's simplicity matching the song's content and lyrics ("Cause what's so simple in the moonlight, in the morning never is," goes the chorus).
Oberst has written his share of list songs about the decline of America and, I guess, the world, at this point, many of which made their way to the latest Bright Eyes record, The People's Key — from that album, "Haile Selassie" and "Shell Games" both earned inspired readings Wednesday night.
But it's work like "Lua" and "Bowl of Oranges" (about seeing the world anew, as if in a dream but not) that seems the most emotionally affecting in the end, chronicling a particular post-adolescent mixed-up period when one's dream world and real life are nigh indistinguishable, and the world doesn't seem to extend beyond one's own struggles and circle of friends.
John Darnielle, whose band The Mountain Goats opened the show, shares some similarities with Oberst: both have singing voices that ooze neuroticism; one often finds bloody sci-fi or horror touches in their work; both started out as low-fi singer-songwriters before expanding their projects into a full band.
Darnielle, though, seems to have gone through more shit than Oberst. His work chronicles, in hyper-realistic detail, child abuse at the hands of a father-as-lion, drug abuse and its attendant squalor, divorce and its attendant humiliation. Darnielle piles on the details when he tells these stories, placing his narratives in a specific place and time, bringing the listener back to the scene of the crime.
His band performed as a tight trio Wednesday night, knocking out material from across the past decade with a minimum of fuss, Darnielle getting in and out of his ultimately folk-rock numbers with a punk intensity and economy.