Rumors of Bright Eyes' demise after its current album have probably been greatly exaggerated, but there were reasons to believe Conor Oberst really is calling it a day during Monday night's sold-out show at First Avenue. Omaha's scrawny song master and his six-piece band played for more than two hours and strategically picked between most of their eight albums. It was the sort of retrospective set list that might be played on a farewell outings. Oberst, 31, also seemed a little extra sentimental about playing First Ave and Minneapolis again with his old friends (they like it so much, they're returning for another gig tonight). "We've have a lot of good times here," he said. "It's like the next best thing to home."
Oberst even reached way back to his 1998 debut with "Falling Out of Love at This Volume," a song he wrote when he was 13 or 14. Despite Bright Eyes' vast amount of musical evolution since then, both that song and other oldies such as "Something Vague" and "The Calendar Hung Itself" fit in surprisingly well with all the newer material -- thanks to some deft, rockier rearrangements from Oberst's cohorts. Even if you're one of those people who find Conor's high-wiry voice grating (many of the best songwriters require a little getting used to), you probably would've agreed he has a helluva band. Some of their best treatments were in "Lover I Don't Have to Love" and "Four Winds," both amped up and made heavier from their original recordings.
But there were also plenty of signs at Monday's show that Oberst is nowhere near done with Bright Eyes. First and foremost was the strength of the new material. "The People's Key" is something of a challenging, forced album, but its songs went down a lot easier Monday when partitioned into two-fers, including the frayed rockers "Haile Selaisse" and "Jejune Stars" at the start of the show and the single "Shell Games" with the freaky dirge "Approximate Sunlight" later. Those tunes' cosmic, psychedelic vibe was sold by two crescent-moon-shaped stage props and a giant video-screen backdrop. The video wall at times overpowered and distracted the room, but it offered a visual representation of Bright Eyes' continued musical ambition. Perhaps the cockiest thing Oberst pulled off was following the triumphal rocker "Road to Joy" -- which just screams "finale!" -- with the more anthemic new song "One for You, One for Me" to end the show. It felt like a U2 closer more than a Bright Eyes song, and it made me think these guys are nowhere near done. Here's Monday's entire set list:
Firewall / Take It Easy (Love Nothing) / Haile Selaisse / Jejune Stars / Four Winds / Cleanse Song / Something Vague / Trees Get Wheeled Away / Shell Games / Approximate Sunlight / Arc of Time / Falling Out of Love at This Volume / Going for Gold / Beginner's Mind / Cartoon Blues / Hot Knives / The People's Key / Old Soul Song / The Calendar Hung Itself / First Day of My Life ENCORE: Gold Mine Gutted / Lover I Don't Have to Love / Road to Joy / One for You, One for Me
As of this morning, tickets to tonight's show were still available ($30). If you're going, be sure to get there in time to see Titus Andronicus (8:30 p.m.). The New Jersey quintet spoiled the usual opening-band audience chatter and demanded attentiveness with its rousing, anarchic folk-punk. My favorite thing about them Monday was how guitarist/violinist Amy Klein sweetly smiled and cheerfully danced throughout the 45-minute set like a curly haired "Peanuts" character -- even when hollering out such refrains as, "The enemy is everywhere!" and the can't-lose chorus, "F--- you!"