Last week Bright Eyes played seven shows in a row at New York’s famed Town Hall. The performances were billed as guest-star studded spectacles — music’s favorite prodigy all grown up and onstage with a huge band and a slew of bold names — and they didn’t disappoint. During the first show (Saturday, May 26th) Lou Reed showed up. Conor and the other twelve or so people currently playing in his band (including the inimitable former drummer from Sleater-Kinney Janet Weiss) were dressed like excitable brides in various shades of white. Reed wore black and joined the band for two songs, “I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Dirty Blvd.”
Over the course of the following six nights Oberst was joined onstage by a slew of other guests including Ben Kweller, Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis and her boyfriend, singer/actor Jonathan Rice, Norah Jones and her band the Little Willies, Nick Zinner and Ben Gibbard, Ron Sexsmith and Britt Daniel. All this starpower came in addition to Conor’s opening act, the extremely impressive Gillian Welch and her man David Rawlings, and Oberst’s girlfriend and fellow Saddle Creek affiliate Maria Taylor, all of whom joined Bright Eyes onstage to lend their particular talent (haunting old school bluegrass vocals if you’re Gillian Welch, tambourine playing if you’re Maria Taylor) to various songs.
Though there are a couple of noteworthy bands on Saddle Creek – the Omaha-based label Oberst helped found – its his music that defines the label, and the scene that gave birth to it. At twenty-seven, the guy is clearly tired of shouldering that burden alone and is trying to get away from images of himself as prophet/troubadour, even though that’s exactly what he is. Oberst has made longtime Bright Eyes collaborators Nate Wolcott and Mike Mogis official members of the band, and he’s gotten busy surrounding himself with other super-talented people likely to re-direct the limelight for at least a few minutes.
Sometimes this is really annoying. Like when you come to see a Bright Eyes show and in the space of an hour have heard at least as many of Ron Sexsmith’s lovely but inconsequential compositions as you have Bright Eyes tunes. Other times this is incredible. Like when you come to see a Bright Eyes show and are left literally slack-jawed as twenty or so seemingly mild-mannered career musicians, including a gleeful David Rawlings and a befuddled Britt Daniel play a revival-like version of “Road to Joy” before beating the shit out of every instrument onstage in a messy musical bacchanal of an encore, which is what happened during the last song of the last show in the seven-night stint.
Oberst is eventually going to have to embrace the fact that he is one of the best songwriters of his generation, a blessing and a curse that not even Lou Reed can help him bear (though Reed could certainly pass along the manual, or something). But this Town Hall residency proves that – in the meantime – Oberst’s current need to share the stage with as many people as possible can work out for us all.