It’s rare that opening acts are given the attention necessary to sufficiently “open” a show. With inadequate sound-checks, poor lighting and slight set times, these bands often sink before they’ve played a note. The fact that most headliners have little or no say over their opening acts only intensifies the problem. Consequently, for most opening artists today, all they get is a half-hearted ‘thank you’ from the headliner after the crowd’s cheering dies down.
But this month’s highly successful East Coast tour by indie super-group Bright Eyes is something different. Billed as “an evening of solo and collaborative performances by M. Ward, Jim James and Bright Eyes,” it’s a tour that stands out on a list of headliner/opener shows because it aims not only for equal billing, but true teamwork.
This unusual lineup probably raised the eyebrows even of devoted fans because these three musicians are from fairly different worlds. M. Ward is a talented, though comparatively unknown, singer/guitarist, Jim James fronts critically acclaimed Southern rock band My Morning Jacket, and Bright Eyes is the main project of prolific songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Conor Oberst. (photo: backstage on the current tour. L-R: M. Ward, Azure Ray Producer Mike Mogis, Conor Oberst, Jim James)
Oberst has garnished a reputation as much for his rich, confessional folk songs as for his depressed demeanor and outspoken stage antics. He’s been a vocal critic of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration, and at a recent performance for the Short List Award (given for albums “of artistic merit” with smaller sales) he blasted Clear Channel, the evening’s sponsors, for their conglomerate business practices. But if Oberst is showing signs of big star behavior, it has yet to follow him on stage. At the tour stop in Chicago last weekend, Oberst and his cohorts gave the crowd a genuine, collaborative evening complete with covers, rotating lineups and instrument swapping.
M. Ward started the evening with his unique brand of complicated acoustic folk songs and invited Oberst on stage to play guitar after only a few numbers. Soon after, Jim James appeared as well, lending his high-ranged, twangy voice to the mix. The evening progressed seamlessly from M. Ward to James to Bright Eyes without any one musician taking front and center for long. Rather than dueling for face time, these musicians worked together to fill out each other’s songs, providing the audience with a unique live experience. If Ward’s set was typified by his skillful guitar playing, then it was James’s soulful singing and humble attitude that highlighted his contributions. His Neil Young-esque voice and southern-flavored songs, like the somber and crooning “One in the Same,” complimented Ward’s musicianship and Oberst’s songwriting.
By the time Oberst began singing some of his own songs, the audience had already seen him lend guitar, vocals, and even bass lines to his counterparts. With his long, lyrically-driven songs, Oberst shifted the focus of the concert yet again, but not without leaving the other musicians room to contribute. While Ward impressed with his guitar and James his voice, it was Bright Eyes’ lyrics that completed the mix at this concert. Whether bitterly recounting the struggle for faith or singing with anguish about love gone wrong, Bright Eyes has important things to say, and says them beautifully. In the song “Waste of Paint” (from the band's latest release, Lifted), Oberst describes a figurative experience of singing to angels in a church:
But when I lift my voice up now to reach them
the range is too high, way up in heaven
So I hold my tongue, forget the song, tie my shoe, and start walking off
And try to just keep moving on, with my broken heart, and my absent God
and I have no faith but it is all I want
to be loved and believe in my soul
He followed aching songs like this with more of the same, including the seemingly self-critical “We Are Nowhere and It Is Now”:
If you hate the taste of wine
why do you drink it till you're blind?
And if you swear that there's no truth and who cares
how come you say it like you're right?
Why are you scared to dream of god
when it's salvation that you want?
It is precisely this sort of conflicted subject matter that gains Oberst respect as one of the most gifted lyricists of his generation. Rather than shying away from the painful and difficult spheres of life and art, he addresses them with force and clarity. After ample applause from the audience, the show concluded with an homage to another gifted writer to whom Oberst has been compared, Bob Dylan. The musicians returned to give their interpretation of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.” As the song closed, Ward, James, and Oberst left the stage the same way they had come on—one at a time, but part of a mutual effort.