It’s tempting, and not entirely inaccurate, to cast Bright Eyes’ excellent show at the Greek Theater in L.A. Thursday night as part of a redemption story in progress. The band’s current tour — its first major outing supporting 2020’s also terrific “Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was” album — has had some uncertainty and suspense built into it. At a Houston date about a month ago, founder-frontman Conor Oberst made headlines by leaving the stage after just two songs, with his band halfheartedly attempting to lead audience members Bright Eyes karaoke before the towel was thrown in. Some tour stops prior to that one proved worrying, like one in Nashville where Oberst, apparently inebriated, bashed the city’s beloved Ryman Auditorium while playing on its very stage.
Reports from the road since that news-making Houston gig have suggested that this erraticism has been corrected. Still, even the most faithful of Oberst’s dedicated fan base — now, like the songwriter himself, squarely in or approaching middle age, but still full of heartache and agita — might have come to the L.A. show with less than utter certainty it would be a triumph. But it was, from the first notes of the opener, “Dance and Sing,” which found Oberst wandering the stage miming his lyrics and propelling himself into half-awkward, half-hilarious dance moves as his crack band, abetted by a full 12-piece orchestra, played through the wily song. Moving with confidence, playing with heart, and still foraging his woe-is-me persona in a wholly relatable way, Oberst proved that Bright Eyes isn’t a sad-sack story, even if his best songs often fall into that category. (He’s also still an unlikely sex symbol: “take off your shirt!” was screamed as he walked on stage, replaced halfway through the show by “take off your pants!” Oberst obliged neither.)
At the peak of his popularity in the early-to-mid 2000s, Oberst was often compared to Bob Dylan for his songwriting prowess and affinity for classic song form and structure, but on this tour it’s clear he shares another trait with the Bard: the desire to rearrange classic songs to keep them fresh, and keep his audience on its toes. With the help of the horn section, “Another Travelin’ Song” was a runaway train rather than a peppy meander. “First Day Of My Life,” arguably the band’s biggest hit, was pared down to just its core and then abetted by a flautist, the hopeful lyrics taking on wisps of melancholy as they lived in an arrangement that felt unsettled rather than optimistic.
The songs on “Down In The Weeds…” are as strong as any in Oberst’s back catalog, and here fit snugly in the set. “Mariana Trench,” notably, feels like it will become a mainstay in the Bright Eyes canon, with the orchestra nimbly backing Oberst through every warbly-voiced lyric.
At the end of the set, before the encore closer “One for You, One for Me,” Oberst went into the front row and warmly introduced himself to a fan named Kate before a brief monologue about the connection between all people. During the song, at its peak moment, he went back into the audience and sang directly to her, “You and me / You and me.” It’s the sort of directness an audience goes to a concert hoping to witness; on this night, more than most, it felt, also, like a true rekindling.