By Mark Guarino
Bright Eyes played the Riviera Tuesday, a show that buffered the hype and lived up to it. He has two new albums out next Tuesday — one country, one electronic — but the 15-song setlist came mostly from the former, a collection of nice, relaxed country songs that rarely reached fever pitch.
To their credit, the six Bright Eyes musicians played more like a patient ensemble than band. Their role was to provide dulcet color with mandolins, keyboards and pedal steel guitar while Oberst sang of late night romance and its early morning dissolution. While boy genius comparisons to Bob Dylan have stuck with him since his teen years, he is more in the footsteps of Gram Parsons, the psychedelic dreamer from the early ‘70s who introduced country music to a young, urban audience. (Emmylou Harris, Parsons’ former backup singer, sings harmony on the new Bright Eyes album, if just for the endorsement.)
But while his songs had sparks, they were slivers of ideas that hung together but barely. Not as engaged as might be expected, Oberst hardly acknowledged the audience during the show’s 80 minutes and at one point, swung the microphone to the side to sing into the wings. His show ran a glacial pace with moments between songs spent in chitchats with bandmates.
The Dylan comparisons no doubt sparked “When the President Talks to God,” an acoustic blues song he played solo. But if this were Dylan, its message wouldn’t have been so obvious and, come to think of it, there would be no direct message at all.
Oberst flashed pent-up aggression, but only popped his top on the last song, “Road To Joy.” With a childlike melody borrowed from Beethoven’s Ninth, it switched from nursery innocence to distorted guitar squalls, the entire band collapsing and picking itself up again with Oberst bellowing lyrics like “when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing/it’s best to join the side that’s gonna win!” The boldness and anger had arrived, running to catch up.