Saturday, July 16, 2011

Live Review: Bright Eyes, The Sage Gateshead, 12/07/2011

I don’t really like proclaiming things ‘the best.’ It basically dismisses everything that has come before as secondary, and can seem like a pretty rash judgment especially in the immediate aftermath, but sometimes they’re just so stupendously brilliant that you’re left with little choice other than to declare them as such. This was the dilemma that I found myself in while being utterly floored by Bright Eyes on Tuesday night. During the break before the encore, I started raking my mind, thinking of the best live shows I’ve ever witnessed and how they compared to what I was experiencing. Arcade Fire at Leeds Festival were pretty special, as were Placebo in France and Frightened Rabbit last year, but all factors considered, I can honestly say that this was not only one that topped them all, but one which did so by a considerable distance.

Conor Oberst may recently have dispelled rumours that he is ready to retire to Bright Eyes name, but you nevertheless get the impression that the band are entering the twilight of their existence. If so, this was an emphatic statement which demonstrates just why they’ll be such a sad miss for the entire musical landscape. Playing a set comprising of early classics as well as cuts from new album The People’s Key, Oberst showed just why he has long been hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. Even more impressive, though, was the conviction with which those songs were performed. The frontman was predictably impassioned, and proved quite the showman despite his somewhat depressed reputation, while the other six members of the band proved faultless in execution and played with just as much verve. On top of that, the venues outstanding acoustics suited them to the ground, emphasising every element of each song in a faultless mix of pitch-perfect sound.

Indeed Oberst did make a conscious effort to amend the usual setlist, after admitting his concerns that some of his songs would be better suited to this particular atmosphere than others. This led to a greater emphasis than usual on the quieter songs, and in particular those from I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, which for many (myself included) still ranks as his finest moment. In truth, though, the louder moments worked just as well, with the likes of "Four Winds" and "Shell Games" in particular impressing alongside softer joys such as "Lover I Don’t Have To Love" and "Land Locked Blues."

It was during the latter of that quartet that most of the audience seemed to get a sense that they were witnessing something truly special, and in keeping the atmosphere went up and notch from that point onwards. To their credit, the band seemed to share that sense, and so chose to give something back during the encore with a rare outing for their most popular song, "First Day Of My Life," which drew a predictably rapturous reception. This was followed by an astonishingly good "Road To Joy," which left onlookers gobsmacked and provided an immense apex and lifted what had already proved an incredible show up to an entirely new level. Following that with closer "One For Me, One For You" was certainly a case of winding-down, but far from an anti-climax this newbie proved a fitting conclusion to a show which you feel that all in attendance – including the band themselves – will remember for a long, long time.

A special mention should also go to husband-wife duo Jenny And Johnny who provided excellent support. The pair – ex Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis and singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice – impressed while showcasing songs from their debut album I’m Having Fun Now, with it’s blissful summery indie pop drawing a positive response. It was when they stripped things down for the two final songs, however, when things got really interesting. Most support acts don’t have the luxury of a totally silent room to perform in, but the formality of The Sage guarantees this, and they were conditions that the pair used thoroughly to their advantage, with two stunning harmonies. They deservedly left to a warm reception, something that was repeated later in the night when Oberst invited them back on stage for a cover of Gillian Welsh’s "Wrecking Bar." They certainly played their part, but the real draw was undoubtedly Bright Eyes, and if ever evidence was needed as to why they’d leave such a gaping hole in the musical landscape, this proved pretty damning.

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