Music Critic Riley Wells reviews the Bright Eyes Birmingham gig at the O2 Institute, describing a mixed performance of highs and lows
On the 5th September 2022, Bright Eyes performed to a nervous, prickling crowd at the O2 Institute in Digbeth. The show was delayed twice during the pandemic, with the Birmingham show forming the penultimate act of the band’s European tour. Two and a half years of patience from their fans had finally come to a head. And then it came crashing down.
On paper, it had everything a great show could need: a beautiful, intimate venue with plush velvet seats and gold leaf, gilded ceilings and a dazzling opening act. Penelope Isles created a wonderful atmosphere during their short set of just forty-five minutes, flitting seamlessly from mellow, ambient tracks to more gritty, fuzzy indie-rock. And then the main event: Bright Eyes, an indie darling with a successful career of more than twenty-five years and countless successful records. So where did it all go wrong?
The answer is complicated. Bright Eyes have always had a reputation of being very hit-or-miss in live settings, with their frontman Conor Oberst even walking off stage after two songs during their Houston show in May. Oberst’s behaviour has caused concern among fans and bandmates alike at multiple intervals throughout his career. Some fans have even become resigned to it, claiming that nobody should take any notice because Oberst has always been a lottery.
Some of the most disturbing moments of the concert included Oberst forgetting the lyrics to their most well-known track, ‘First Day of My Life’, needing bandmate Nate Walcott to prompt him with chords for ‘Ladder Song’ and even abandoning his guitar during some tracks, leaving them sounding hollow and empty without his input. Because this is not entirely new for the band, I was led to question why Oberst’s bandmates had no backup plan. Instead of reassuring the audience, or even calling for an interval, they remained awkward and motionless on stage. It was Oberst himself, even through his incoherence, who offered the microphone to a fan during ‘First Day of My Life’.
She sang beautifully, and I found it to be a bittersweet gesture that offered a fan a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity whilst alluding that Oberst is painfully conscious of his downward trajectory. Despite its worrying undertones, it was a very special moment to watch, and seemed to prove that no matter how Oberst feels about himself, he always attempts to have his fans’ best interests at heart.
Of course, credit must be given where it is due, and there were many enjoyable aspects of the show. The setlist, for example, showcased a variety of old and new Bright Eyes songs, including some truly standout performances of ‘Arienette’ and ‘The Calendar Hung Itself…’ from their 2000 album Fevers and Mirrors, both of which I have been listening to on repeat since the show. It is worth noting that many of the performances during the first half of the show were sharp, well-rehearsed and overall quite exciting to watch, giving me a new appreciation for the songs played, such as ‘Mariana Trench’ and ‘Persona Non Grata’, both from the 2020 album Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was.
In short, Bright Eyes can be excellent performers at their best, and at their worst are deeply upsetting. One can only hope that they get some good rest before their tour picks up again in the U.S. in October. They are a very special group, both personally and across the entire indie rock genre, and I wish them the best for their future concerts.
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