Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst has always been adept at walking fine lines, and he traversed a number of them at this, the biggest Gotham show in the band’s 13-year career. He’s managed to master the fine art of commanding a large stage, but has yet to sacrifice the rec-room intimacy of his earliest performances, learned to convey sweeping messages without adopting a lecture-hall stance and found a way to incorporate post-modern electronics while retaining the coffeehouse folksiness that imbued his earliest work.
This sold out perf was partially a welcome-back event (since Oberst had put the band on hiatus back in 2007) and partially a farewell (since he’s implied the recently released Saddle Creek set “The People’s Key” was something of a last hurrah). As such, the band traversed a good many of its releases over the course of its two hours on stage – bringing the older material into this decade with new arrangements that added some welcome swing, while occasionally erring on the side of excess.
When Oberst and company got the balance right, the results were positively galvanizing, as on soaring versions of “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” and “We Are Nowhere and It Is Now,” both of which revolved around carefully-hewn riffs strung between crisp, neo-martial rhythms. The latter element sometimes bulled too far to the fore – as on an over-driven rendition of the new “Jejeune Stars” – combining with the gaudy light show to bring back memories of arena-rock’s bad old days.
But far more often, the band settled into a convivial mood, cranking up the volume and energy with precious little in the way of posturing. That helped emphasize the communal vibe of the new album’s title song – a prescient plea for economic and emotional equanimity – and the encore-anchoring live staple “Road to Joy,” on which Oberst’s cohorts readily obliged the mid-song exhortation to “fuck it up and make some noise.”
The openers both brought plenty to the table as well. Wild Flag, an indie super-group of sorts, created a hypnotic vibe by shaking and stirring the angular post-punk structures of Sleater-Kinney (the one-time home to guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss) and the free-form psychedelia that guitarist Mary Timony favored in her former band, Helium.
Elder statesmen Superchunk thrashed out nine songs – evenly divided between vintage favorites and tracks from last fall’s “Majesty Shredding” — in a breathless 40 minutes. The quartet’s ability to convey, 20 years on, the sort of wonderment built into these versions of “Detroit Has a Skyline” and “Seed Toss,” was a joy to behold.