It was a strange scene outside the Civic Center Saturday night as young hipsters mingled with a decidedly older crowd, each visibly confused by the other’s presence. Both were anxious to reach their seats, but what neither realized was the seats were for two very different shows. The former had come for the country-tinged folk and electronic indie rock of Bright Eyes at The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium; the latter, a Fireman’s benefit at the Civic Center featuring ‘60s pop icons BJ Thomas (“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”) and Billy Joe Royal (“Down in the Boondocks”).
Inside Thomas Wolfe, Cursive had already begun, and the sound of Tim Kasher’s raspy baritone echoed through the lobby like the sound of an approaching thunderstorm. While latecomers filtered into the dimly-lit auditorium, Cursive delivered an earth-shattering performance that mixed bouncy newer tracks like “Caveman” and “Big Bang” with the signature, punchy dissonance of older offerings like “Butcher the Song” and “The Martyr,” a crowd favorite that induced an enthused “F—k yeah!” from the balcony. Kasher remained silent between songs, but during the performance he was animated and loose, almost possessed as he delivered deeply personal, brutally honest tales of betrayal, loneliness and self-doubt in a voice that leapt from the hushed whisper to wall-bending shrieks in the course of a verse.
Having seen the band headline in smaller venues before unruly mobs of dedicated fans, it was slightly odd to watch Kasher pour out his heart for a subdued crowd resting comfortably in their seats. Nonetheless, the band laid it all out, almost daring the audience not to listen. After nearly an hour, Kasher finally spoke.
“Holy crap!” he interjected. “Just like that, it’s all over. We are collectively known as Cursive, and it is our pleasure to be here.”
And just like that, Cursive was over, ending the set with 2009’s “From the Hips.”
By the time Bright Eyes arrived, the auditorium was packed with bodies and bursting at the seams with anticipation. Conor Oberst appeared under cover of darkness, and the crowd erupted into applause, the affectionate shrieks of swooning girls piercing the auditorium and drowning out the spoken-word introduction, a bizarre narrative about aliens, love and space.
The band opened with two tracks from its latest effort, The People’s Key, and though it was clear many were unfamiliar with the most recent material (the album was released just weeks ago), already a chorus of sing-alongs threatened to drown out the band.
From there, Oberst and Co. touched on every phase of the band’s career (one that spans nearly a dozen albums and a host of genres), delighting fans with old favorites like “An Attempt to Tip the Scales,” “The Calendar Hung Itself,” “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” and “Nothing Gets Crossed Out,” which Oberst dedicated to “one of [his] oldest friends,” Cursive’s Kasher.
As someone who’s seen Bright Eyes on a half-dozen occasions since 2002, it was especially interesting to hear the band’s older, folk- and country-oriented material this time around. People’s Key has an electronic leaning similar to that of 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and that shift that was reflected in the band’s instrumentation and lineup. There’s no question that the move toward electronics had an impact on the selected back catalog Saturday, but the influence was subtle and graceful, leaving fans satisfied and the songs feeling new and rejuvenated.
It’s also worth noting that the performance drew a shockingly diverse crowd: 20-something rock fans, teenagers with their parents, electronic fans in brightly-colored hoodies and bearded country fans with cowboy hats all shared a common love for this genre-bending songwriter.
Oberst, for his part, was engaging, animated and talkative.
“If anyone’s got any weed, now’s probably the time,” he joked before the start of “Hallie Selassie” near the end of the show.
After a number of offerings from 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and 2007’s Cassadega, Bright Eyes closed with a horn-laden rendition of “Lua,” undeniably a highlight of the evening.
For the encore, Oberst took no chances, ending the two-hour, 24-song set with a fury of favorites: “Gold Mine Gutted,” “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” “Bowl of Oranges” and “Road to Joy.”
At times, it seems Bright Eyes’ sound shifts with the wind. Is it a folk band, a rock band, a country outfit or an electronic project? By the end of Saturday’s performance, the answer was clear: Bright Eyes is whatever Oberst wants. And I, for one, think that’s working just fine.