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- Melkweg, Amsterdam »
- Bright Eyes »
Amsterdam has a shortage of mid-sized venues. Bright Eyes are too popular for the Melkweg but the collective continue to play here, packing it to way past its fire code capacity each time. Thankfully Amsterdam has yet to experience summer, so despite the overfilled hall it’s not too humid. Last time Conor Oberst and I made bright eyes at each other, about two years ago mind you, he had a harpist and dedicated back-up singer filling in the cracks veining his frail, pensive melodies. This time, the band is much, much bigger.
Oberst, along with permanent band members Mike Mogis and Nathan Willett, is joined by an all-female string and brass section, plus two female drummers. I count six in total, but the venue is too cramped to see the entire stage. Additionally, a screen sits behind the troupe, layering relatively abstract visuals onto each song. Now Bright Eyes boasts a flute, cello, flugelhorn, slide guitar, congas and weird visuals. No harp, though. Even trade.
Cassadaga is the name of the game throughout the hour-long set – eight or nine of the twelve songs played come from Bright Eyes’ latest LP. Although it’s traditional for touring artists to prioritise their newest songs with each and every show, and a leaning towards fresh and not-yet boring material is to be expected, this is _a bit much. A yearning for tracks off _I’m Wide Awake oozes from the audience between songs, but only ‘First Day Of My Life,’ delivered in an upbeat bluegrass fashion, is supplied. It is brilliant, mind you, but more would have been appreciated.
As usual, the strengths of the set are Oberst’s fragile vocal work and the simplicity the orchestration viscerally spews from note to note. A lot is going on, constantly, from a sultry slide-guitar part flirting with a flugelhorn on ‘Four Winds’ to a spirally staircase flute line mingling with arpeggio cello pangs on 'If The Brakeman Turns My Way'. The songs from Cassadaga are not complicated – from the atypical Dylan-esque folk on ‘Hot Knives’ to the ambient atmospheric politico of show and album opener ‘Kill or Be Killed’ – but how the band manages each note and employs the instruments within is impressive. Throughout his career, Oberst has mastered the art of cramming complex metaphors and symbolism into plaintive balladry, and this heavily orchestrated showcase of the new goods is no different. The songs shine brightly as a result.
Yet, the highlight of the evening proves to be an old song: ‘Gold Mine Gutted’ from the Digital Ash In A Digital Urn album. The only full-band encore track – the rest is acoustic – begins with a dual drum relay, an all-female one at that, before falling into a sorrowful piano prod punchier than an inebriated marine. It’s four minutes of bliss, sheer bliss. Despite this older number standing out, all of Cassadaga showcases exhibiting one of the best songwriters traversing the indie market today, together with a big band capable of supporting each twist and turn as if it was born buoyant. The only downside to proceedings, really, is that Oberst has grown his hair real long, and now looks like a cross between Meg White and the guy from The Darkness. Glad I only caught a glimpse of him once or twice during the set.
Photograph by Ryan Atkinson
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