QUEENS, NY – After a nine-year hiatus—and ten years since their last live shows—Bright Eyes is back. Among the folks in the front row was a couple who had traveled from Florida for the sole purpose of seeing the band. Behind them stood a trio of friends who, when asked if they were seeing the band for the first time, replied in the vernacular of the music lover: “We’ve seen BOCC” – Better Oblivion Community Center, the collaboration of Phoebe Bridgers and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst—“but this is the first time seeing Bright Eyes.”
For many, it was not just the first Bright Eyes concert, but the first live show since early 2020, when covid-19 entered our everyday lexicon. I think many of us wanted to feel an uncomplicated sort of relief or jubilation to be on the other side—except we aren’t yet past this pandemic. The day before, Bright Eyes announced the postponement of the Terminal 5 show they were set to play the following night, citing the need to “recalibrate and reassess their safety measures on an almost daily basis as new information is reported.”
At the beginning of Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World—a quasi-cyberpunk-meets-Orwellian-dystopia novel—the narrator is in an elevator that’s presumably ascending, but it moves so slowly and silently that all sense of direction simply vanishes. Maybe he’s gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe he’s circled the globe—how would he know? And the buttons are missing—no floor numbers to press, no door open and door close, no emergency stop.
The first months of the pandemic felt like this featureless, hermetically sealed elevator. I was very fortunate to keep working from home, but time moved in strange ways, dilating into a string of blursdays. As relics of the “before times,” I kept two pieces of paper taped to the inside of my front door—a half-marathon training schedule (the race had been scheduled for mid-March), and my ticket for Bright Eyes’ concert—a January 2020 purchase for a June 2020 show. In retrospect, my estimate of covid’s timeline (oh, we’ll be back at it by August or so) was laughably optimistic.
A year and a month later, we finally congregated in Forest Hills Stadium. The wait made the gathering that much more poignant. The setting sun cast long shadows across the stadium floor as Oberst’s bandmates stepped on stage, Nate Walcott, trumpet in hand, leading the pack. The set kicked off with a buoyant rendition of Christopher Cross’s Arthur’s Theme. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Miwi La Lupa’s face lit up in a smile when we cheered at the line, “When you get caught between the moon and New York City.” With this bite out of the Big Apple, Oberst sauntered in twirling a walking stick, his debonair look set off with a top hat, tailcoat, and piano-keys tie. The reassuring mid-tempo pace and lush arrangement of “Dance and Sing,” from 2020’s Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, framed lines that were heart-rending and appropriate for this moment in our collective history. When Oberst stood at the edge of the stage to deliver the chorus, his eyes screwed shut in intensity—“I’ll grieve what I have lost / Forgive the firing squad / How imperfect life can be / Now all I can do is just dance on through”—the emotional import really hit me. Perhaps this sartorial playfulness was meant to be a counterweight to all that we’ve collectively lost this past year.
“New York—we’re back!” Oberst exclaimed. The audience answered with cheering and squealing that echoed around the stands.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a photo pit. My heart was hammering so loudly that it was a relief to feel it overtaken by the pulse of the bassline, to feel the air pushed strong and steady through the speakers, to hear the yearning prettiness of Mike Mogis’s pedal steel, and to watch Oberst move back and forth across the stage, arms swept wide, giving us the immediacy and closeness for which we hungered. In the heaviness of the world, I’d been so worried that I’d lost the part of me that can feel joy in this way. It was a relief to know that my anxiety—do I still know how to do this?—was sky-high because I still care deeply about this exchange between musician and photographer, this synergy of band and audience.
When Oberst sat down at the piano for “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” (Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, 2002), his gaze seemed inward focused on the minor key chords ringing out, dark and moody and so of-the-moment: “Let’s just keep touching / Let’s just keep, keep singing.” It was a bracing reminder of the preciousness and contingency of these live shows. Later in the set, Oberst thanked everyone for coming out, remarking “who knows when we’ll get to do this again?” as the delta variant surges.
“We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, 2005) was next, with Oberst on guitar and Mogis on mandolin. Throughout the night, a dozen or so band members joined on strings, brass, and woodwinds. How is it that Bright Eyes songs seem so prescient? Lines like, “All day it seems we’ve been in between / The past and future town” have a different import after a year of isolation. Post hoc interpretation is a dicey proposition, though, and in any case, Bright Eyes’ brand is the juxtaposition of literate, melancholy reflections with colorful, sometimes folky, sometimes anthemic arrangements. Take “Four Winds,” for example—the references to Yeats and DeLillo would prompt eye-rolls, except Oberst is so damned earnest and the fiddle so jaunty that we’re swept along anyway.
The setlist was heavy on old favorites, with plenty of singalong moments. At the end of the main set, Oberst picked up long-stemmed white roses from the piano and threw them out into the crowd.
The stage dimmed, then lit up again for the encore, the stage backdrop of a bright eyes eye chart obscured in a purple haze. The familiar opening chords—E-G#-C#m—washed over us. The audience whooped briefly before settling into a reverent quiet. There was a quaver in Oberst’s delivery—”This is the first day of my life”—and a slightly elongated pause after the word “first.” Next to me, a father pressed a kiss to his baby’s forehead. I’d waited a decade to hear this song live, and it was even more beautiful than I’d hoped.
The final song of the night was “One For You, One For Me” (The People’s Key, 2011). Oberst prefaced it by saying, “This is the one I most want to express to all of you. This is the final message. Thank you for being here.” The contrast of ruling class and righteous, the bread lines and the billionaires, a call for harmony that doesn’t sugarcoat divisions, the synth-laden arrangement set over a shuffling drumbeat, made for an uplifting closer.
Oberst’s origin story is rooted in the Midwest—as New York Magazine observed in 2005, the Omaha, Nebraska native’s “lyrics [are] tied to a certain bleak emotional landscape—which often mirrored the physical one outside his parents’ window.” For Lucy Dacus, it is the complexities of the South that loom large. The indie-rock darling (she’s part of a supergroup trio, boygenius, with Julien Baker and the aforementioned Phoebe Bridgers) referred to this as the dream bill she would have created as a fledgling artist. It was certainly a dream bill for us to experience.
Songs like “Triple Dog Dare” and “VBS” from 2021’s Home Video situate us in the grainy details of someone “interrogat[ing] her coming-of-age years in Richmond, Virginia.” To be young and queer and caught up in conservative Christian mores is no easy thing to navigate, especially when your folks send you off to bible study (“VBS means vacation Bible school, and I went to tons of them,” she says). There’s a dusky intimacy to the lower-register melodies in these songs, and it’s easy to picture a kid in a bunk bed after lights-out, listening to forbidden music through headphones. We go from the nearly whispered lines: “There’s nothing you can do but the only thing you found / Playing Slayer at full volume helps to block it out,” to a cacophony of drums and synths. The abruptness with which the other instruments join in is a perfect metaphor for the way in which music can be freeing.
Dacus’s writing is so good, her verses so economical and graceful, that I’m absorbed simply reading them on a page. To hear the songs live, in her voice both sonorous and steadying—that was beyond. The thirty-minute set was far too short, and I’m envious of concertgoers who snagged tickets to her headlining set at Music Hall of Williamsburg the following night, announced at the last minute after Bright Eyes postponed the Terminal 5 show.
Home Video is an apt title for a collection of songs that draws our focus to the way everyday acts and omissions, conversations, and silences, all accrete. But Dacus treats solemn subjects in a way that’s not self-serious—these songs are well suited for both quiet reflection at home and energetic singalongs at concerts. A few minutes into her set at Forest Hills Stadium, she donned a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses against the glare of the late afternoon sun, and one word popped into my head: Marvelous. She’s simply marvelous.
Five of the six songs Dacus and her band performed were off her new album, and they wrapped up the set with “Night Shift” from 2018’s Historian. The song about a relationship gone sour unfolds unhurriedly, transitioning from introspection over a single guitar (the first part feels tranquil even while the lines are unapologetically biting) into a brilliantly fierce kiss-off, complete with drums and distorted guitars. The gloves are off, the crescendo builds, fueled by the precision strike of the incisive lines: “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers / Dedicated to new lovers.”
That song wrecks me. From her adolescent diaries to the dreamed-of bill shared with Bright Eyes and Waxahatchee, Dacus continues to translate memories—that shifting landscape of disappointment and confusion and hope—into something we can hold onto.
I’m surely not alone in confessing that as much as I was looking forward to Bright Eyes, it was Lucy Dacus’s set that’s now etched into my brain. And I don’t make that proclamation lightly, as Waxahatchee’s gorgeous set felt like the thawing of our pandemic-frozen beings. With the exception of a Haim cover (“The Steps”), Birmingham native Katie Crutchfield’s performance was drawn entirely from her fifth and most recent album, St. Cloud. The arrangements are uncluttered, infused with the timeless feel of southern music tradition (think Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Tammy Wynette), a clean palette for her lyrical artistry.
Crutchfield knows she’s arrived, in a sense—on “The Eye,” she sings, “I leave my home, desolate but not alone.” She’s referred to St. Cloud as the favorite thing she’s ever made, and there’s a real joy in sharing in her love for what’s going on here, sonically and lyrically.
While the album feels open and airy, it’s not exactly sunny. “Ruby Falls,” for instance, opens with: “I take flight on borrowed time / I was once terrified of heights,” and ends underground, “I’ll sing a song at your funeral / Laid in the Mississippi gulf / Or back home at Waxahatchee Creek.” In the span of three minutes and forty-five seconds, we’re taken through a story in three parts, referencing a friend who Crutchfield lost to a drug overdose.
Waxahatchee’s set ended with “Fire,” a song I’ve listened to through my headphones countless times. To hear it live, reverberating in the summer night, was something else. It was golden hour and Crutchfield’s white dress was cast in a soft, warm glow. It’s a song about lessons learned after getting sober, about being ok with uncertainty. The song fades out on a repeated refrain: “It ain’t enough.”
It ain’t enough.
As I write this, I think to myself that these moments both are and aren’t enough. In “One and Done,” Oberst references the Anthropocene. This is code red for humanity. And in this moment, it’s possible to feel both terrified and hopeful, both alone and connected. What links these three artists’ lyrical content, and what brings us together on a summer night, is the uncertainty and preciousness of it all. Music, made and shared at a live show, takes a private diary entry and transforms it into a shared ritual, an offer of mutual understanding and a promise of return. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland—the novel I mentioned at the start—the caretaker character collects instruments but no longer remembers how to play them. Our narrator struggles to make sense of it all, and later on in the novel, finally picks up an accordion. The notes and chords come to him slowly, and the melody materializes. He says:
“When have I last heard a song? My body has craved music. I have been so long without music, I have not even known my own hunger. The resonance permeates; the strain eases within me. Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.”
That encapsulates the Forest Hills show for me—a thaw after much fear and darkness.
Where does that leave us, exactly? Should we even be planning on fall shows? I don’t have answers to this, apart from knowing that science and compassion must lead the way. Nor do I have a clear articulation of what music, and live music, in particular, means when humanity is on the precipice. I know that a song or a concert, it ain’t enough. But maybe it’s enough to be going on with. Music is fuel—memory, and meaning and feeling that we burn to keep ourselves warm.
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