Last Friday, a long-awaited return was in order at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium; Bright Eyes, the seminal indie-folk project led by Conor Oberst and rounded out by contributors Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, was finally due to return to the Music City after their 2020 reunion was derailed by COVID-19. The nearly sold-out crowd was radiating with anticipation all through opener Christian Lee Hutson’s set (which was great, and we’ll mention below), merch lines wrapped around the queues multiple times over, and there was a general sense of unpredictability in the air as the crowd settled in to take in the set. Past setlists and tales of their brief 2021 touring experience indicated a night where no one was really sure what they were getting — in a beautiful venue like the Ryman, we simply were sitting down to take what was given to us by the mercurial singer-songwriter.
At 9:15p on the nose, Oberst and his 11-piece band (which included a full chamber orchestra and regular collaborators like Miwi La Lupa and Macey Taylor) strutted onto the stage. After a brief tuneup that sounded as if a full orchestra was in our presence, Bright Eyes launched into “Dance and Sing” off of 2020’s Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, and we were off to the races. As a longtime fan of the project, I can confidently say that every era of Bright Eyes was given to us over the course of a rambling, exciting two-hour-long set. Immediate highlights were the band went deep in the discography to records like Cassadega or Fevers and Mirrors. In one moment, you might get the soft folk of “Poison Oak”, followed by the 80s anthemic cosplay of “Shell Games”. It was an exciting setlist that never really dipped as long as they were performing. The band behind Oberst was also in peak performance mode; it felt as if the Ryman walls were caving in at points, with brass sections colliding with the multi-instrumental prowess of Mogis in a fit of cacophonous joy. At the center of it all was Oberst, who was in rare form (and probably a little intoxicated) as he acted as the ringleader of the Bright Eyes circus. There are plenty of different accounts of this show online that raised some concerns within the fanbase because it was not without controversy — frequently, Oberst would talk for minutes in between his set, and his comments tended to disparage the Ryman and Nashville as a whole. Whether commenting on the past racism of the Ryman (“I told those motherfuckers I would never play here again as long as that Confederate bullshit was here”) reflections on experiences on the road so far (“Every night I show up to play these songs and I’m never completely sure what they’re about”) or a humorous (to-a-point) longstanding beef with Jack White and Dan Auerbach that found Oberst proto-noodling on hackey blues riffs, he toed the line between creating an enjoyable look at the mind of one of our most beloved songwriters and generally making laughter of himself. However — that’s what you get with Bright Eyes. You don’t come for a clean-cut, by-the-books rundown of the songs you’ve heard before. You come to drink, laugh, and cry as one of the most brilliant songwriters of our generation puts his heart on display. One hopes that Oberst is doing well and the return to the limelight won’t be too bright for him, but the euphoric and chaotic experience of their Ryman show illustrated them as a band that we desperately needed in the fold again.
Christian Lee Hutson opened the night up with a stellar set celebrating the release of his sophomore album Quitters, which came out that day on ANTI-. This set was a much more mellow affair, led by Hutson’s marvelous guitar-playing and vivid story-telling lyricism that won over the crowd in his Ryman debut. With a three-piece band, Hutson fleshed out songs off of the new album along with old favorites from Beginners, his album released in 2020 as the world fell apart. As this was one of the first tours behind that record, there was a sense of inventiveness tied to the live arrangements of his music — scattered, skittering drums on “Northsiders” and the intense jam session at the end of “Strawberry Lemonade” were examples of an artist slowly honing their craft, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him headlining the Ryman very soon. Check out our photos of the night below: