Artists: Bright Eyes, Hurray for the Riff Raff
Venue: Pappy & Harriet’s
Date: June 26, 2022
Last Sunday, the California desert was blessed with the songs of two of the best songwriters in indie rock out there. At the famed concert venue Pappy & Harriett’s, Bright Eyes performed with a full fourteen-piece band for a show that spanned from grandiose to intimate, and which shows how far the early 00’s midwest Emo heartthrob has come as a performer and songwriter.
Opening the show was Hurray for the Riff Raff, performing as a stripped down duo. Lead singer/songwriter Alynda Mariposa Segarra is an excellent lyrical narrator, and is not afraid to insert complex phrasing (or words) into her songs, such as recent single “Rhododendron”, which maintained its peppy beat even as an acoustic number. Segarra also didn’t mince words when it came to the recent Supreme Court decision, dedicating her next song, the poignant and searing “Saga” to all survivors of assault (like herself).
“Pointed at the Sun” also remained as memorable as it is on record in the setting, with lines like “I’m just a loaded gun. I know I’m not the only one, pointed straight at the sun” hitting differently as the sun set over the venue. The performance highlight though was new song “Snake Plant”, written about Segarra’s times homeless and riding the rails. The track is a lyrical triumph, featuring Dylan-level writing that was captivating.
The sky was turning shades of pink and purple as Conor Oberst and his huge band took the stage and shattered the desert silence with the joyful noise of “Dance and Sing”. Having both a string and horn section, on top of guitar, bass, strings and drums, the band’s sound was a filled the outdoor space with a symphonic cacophony that seemed to be Oberst’s way of telling the crowd “this ain’t going to be some quiet acoustic show”. Now 42, the singer still retains a bit of that Gen X boyishness, but gone is any sense of the insular, timid performer that Bright Eyes conjured during their earliest days. Oberst has fully embraced the performance aspect of being a frontman, bringing wild hand gestures, dramatic interpretations and carefree dancing onto his stage.
Of course, he often had a guitar in his hands, such as on the crowd-favorite second song “Four Winds”, a folksy, fiddle-led singalong full of religious imagery and organized religion criticism (“The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Qu’ran is mute. If you burned them all together you’d get close to the truth”). I was very happy to get to hear this memorable track from 2007’s Casadega, though my partner was more excited for the next one, as Bright Eyes went further back to 2002 for “Bowl of Oranges”. It was around this time that Oberst invited Segarra up to join him for a song. Unfortunately, Segarra seemed to have not received the memo or had become indisposed, as she was a nowhere to be found. The band decided to move onto the next track, in hopes they could circle back to the duet later.
It can be kind of mind-blowing to think that Bright Eyes have been around in some form for nearly twenty five years, and they’re still writing and recording new music that packs a punch. “Marianas Trench”, from 2020’s Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, became a satisfyingly heavy rock song with the full band behind it. As Oberst would say on stage, this tour was their first opportunity to play songs from their latest album, due to the pandemic delaying their tour, so they made sure to fit in a couple others throughout the night (“One and Done”, “Persona Non Grata”).
Bright Eyes‘ most popular album, the Gold-selling I’m Wide Awake (It’s Morning) got its first nod that evening with “Old Soul Song” before the band went even further back to super-early track “Falling Out of Love at this Volume”. Songs like that one, originally record in the late nineties, were truly transformed when backed by the band, as well as Oberst as a more mature, confident singer and performer.
One of the initial highlights of the evening was the haunting take on “No One Would Riot for Less”, with its gentle acoustic melody and haunting backing vocals ringing out in the warm spacious night. From this intimate moment, the band went back to epic mode with a powerful, mesmerizing take on “Haile Selassie”.
Another peak moment of the show was “Poison Oak”, one of the most touching and vulnerable tracks off I’m Wide Awake. Starting as a softly sung acoustic lament for a troubled boyhood friend, the track swells into equal parts sorrow and catharsis. From here, the band went into “Neely O’Hara” and their biggest hit “First Day of My Life”, before closing their initial set with “The Calendar Hung Itself”.
As the venue has a strict 10pm curfew, the band came back for their encore quickly, focusing on full-band tracks like “Ladder Song”, “I Believe in Symmetry”, and the sharp, rousing plea for empathy “One for You, One for Me”. The nearly seven-minute song was a stunning closer, and while I would have personally loved to hear “Road to Joy”, “Easy/Lucky/Free” or the quiet “Lua”, it was hard to be disappointed by the band’s incredible nineteen-song setlist for the evening that managed to draw from the full twenty five years Bright Eyes has existed.
If you’re someone who is not familiar with the band, you can start listening to Bright Eyes here.