The Paramount Theatre
I prepared for last night by reading about cultural rites of passage; the kinds of happenings where young men are taken into the jungle, given a spear, and aren’t allowed back into the village until they’ve claimed the life of the desired beast. Or the Jewish bar mitzvah, in which the young man recites a portion of the Torah and, in exchange, gets to ride a chair over the heads of old people. The goal of these events is to contrive a trial that forces the youth into finding the other side of the liminal state that is puberty. These trials come at different times in different cultures. In America, it’s common for them to not happen at all. American youth are left to navigate the here-and-there of adulthood with little more trial than being required to sit maturely while their parents describe the sexy method of family-starting. Tonight is a kind of rite of passage for me.
Its easy for me to feel like I’ve grown up alongside Connor Oberst, the lead man of the decade-stretching, tear-jerking, panty-swim that is Bright Eyes. Although he has quite some years on me, the stages of his life are perfectly encapsulated in the band’s seven full-length albums. Oberst was 25 years old when I first started listening to his records. His manner of describing a specific moment so intimately that it felt like it happened to you a long time ago was astonishing. Oberst was 27 years old when I sobbed all the way through Fevers and Mirrors, walking through the different rooms of my childhood home, before leaving them for the fair West Coast. I listened to it again on the plane with my mom the next day, and repeated the experience. In retrospect, it was kind of a cruel music choice on my part. And then, Oberst was 31 years old last night, when he played what -according to his touring schedule and press releases- could have been his last American performance as “Bright Eyes“, his call-name since 1995.
In 2009, Oberst released several statements that his latest album, The People’s Key, would be his last under the Bright Eyes moniker. Made up of two and then, more recently, three permanent members, Bright Eyes first came to the large public’s attention with their album Lifted: or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, produced by Oberst’s right-hand-man, Mike Mogis. The group’s popularity grew with their next set of albums, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, which included Bright Eyes‘ third permanent member, Nathaniel Walcott. The two albums represented the split, dualistic nature of Bright Eyes: folky, but electronic, political, but spacey, material, but not at all. It was during this period that Oberst would famously drink himself into oblivion throughout the duration of their performances; a habit that continued through the Cassadaga tour (2007). During the four years between Cassadaga and The People’s Key, I was in college and Oberst was playing in different projects: The Mystic Valley Band and Monsters of Folk. These years cannot be cnsidered “lost years”, because I gained a lot of knowledge and skill that will aid me for the rest of my life and Oberst still put out an album every year. I caught the Monsters of Folk show in Seattle a couple of years back. The end of the performance saw a sober Connor Oberst. So, something has changed.
And change is something that we like to signify with the laying down of one name and the picking up of a new one. But for one more night, we’ll talk about Bright Eyes.
The stage is set just as I arrive at the Paramount Theatre. Just moments after I find my place in a crowd that could have served as it’s own model of Bohr’s Atomic Model (with the stage as the nucleus), Oberst and band take the stage. They open with “Four Winds“. Members from other Saddle Creek bands -including The Faint and The Mynabirds– fill in the gaps between Mogis, Walcott and Oberst, who is walking in circles like a proud stallion. His jaw line has thickened. He looks adult. Photographers must go crazy trying to find an angle and complimentary lens that will show Oberst as the depressed teenager he’s been branded as.
The moment that I really want to talk about, though, is the one in which they played “Lover I Don’t Have to Love“. Their performance of the song was perfect, but tense. Perfect, as in it made me feel the same way that it did the first time that I heard it, back when Oberst was 25 years old. Tense, in that it should not have been their most perfect song of the night if we are truly moving forward to new stage of life. Now that Oberst has traded his sadness for political and social causes—switched his suicide notes for ballots and sermons of world peace—we would hope that his passions would follow suit. And I have personal stock in this. For the guy standing in the crowd hoping that Oberst’s passage to adulthood will grant me the same, it feels like sitting in the rocking chair that was just the right size for me when I was four and finding that my ass still fits. Perfectly.
I felt a little water in my eyes as the band began “Shell Games“, the single from their new album. But I’ll be honest: I was really hoping that would happen. It was half-planned. This is the song that serves as Oberst’s end-of-Bright Eyes manifesto. It’s really the principle of the thing that’s got me in the tear ducts. But it’s kind of awkward.
He’s not playing guitar anymore. Instead, he’s making hand motions to match the words of his songs. He sings “solar plexus” and, to match, he lifts up his shirt and strokes his chest. And then he throws some gang signals out with his hands that don’t actually correlate to words in his songs. But to be fair, what’s not a gang signal? Though, Oberst does talk a surprising amount about Dr. Dre during the set and how he doesn’t want to disrespect him.
The show ends and I walk home. I’m a little confused by what I saw and I try to make conclusions and connections that will make sense of it all. Expectation and reality are as dually split as Wide Awake and Digital Ash. Maybe, to tie it all together, I might make the statement that rites of passage are meant to be awkward. They are forced and contrived and only something on a larger community sense. And on that scope, the end of Bright Eyes can mean something to me. However, on the scale on which I am a person and Oberst is a person, who has unfortunately inherited the weight of my own early-twenties liminality, I have to complain that I still feel like a sad tween; but now a little more concerned for my future.
Ben Rowe (text & illustrations) also fronts the 8-piece band, Friends and Family.
Find out more at www.friendsandfamilyband.bandcamp.com.