Bright Eyes is the brainchild of Conor Oberst, a catholic prep-school kid from Omaha, Neb. At 13 Oberst had already recorded his first independent album on a four-track. By 14, he had formed Commander Venus with some buddies (one of them Tim Kasher, later to go on and form another successful Omaha band, Cursive) releasing two albums under that name.
During the Commander Venus years, Oberst continued to write songs on his own, and after the release of the second album, Oberst decided to focus more on his own musical roots and passions: acoustic-based songs. He shied away from the heavy guitars of his old project and formed a new band, Bright Eyes, under which he could release a collection of twenty songs he had written during the previous years.
What is now an important label in the indie-rock circle, Saddle Creek, put out the first Bright Eyes album, Letting Off the Happiness, in 1998. After a frustrating attempt to keep a consistent circle of band members, Oberst decided to make Bright Eyes a name for his personal songs and allow a rotating group of players to hit the road with him and record albums.
But it wasn’t until 2000 and the release of the masterpiece Fevers and Mirrors that Oberst’s true potential became apparent. His frighteningly intense, personal lyrics and knack for odd instrumentation caught the attention of hoards of college students who found Oberst’s storytelling addictive.
In 2002 the latest Bright Eyes LP, Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, was released with the same ingenious, autobiographical songs but bathed in a slew of new styles.
As Bright Eyes’ success has grown, so has the fan base. At live shows you will now find an equal number of undergraduate English majors and adolescent girls, who adore Conor Oberst for his sentimentality, honesty and, perhaps above all, his Jimmy Fallon-esque good looks.
What is most exciting about Bright Eyes shows, however, is the unpredictability. Oberst has been known to get too drunk to play (come on, he’s a tortured soul – you can’t honestly expect him to stay sober) or stay dead sober, solemnly strumming his acoustic guitar.
You also never know what songs Oberst will be playing, as he takes the admirable high road and doesn’t stick to the songs from the previous major record release and a few of his old throwbacks. At any given concert you have the opportunity to catch a B-side or a rare track put out on some shared EP. And, because the band members rotate so consistently, the sound of the songs varies from show to show – what could be annoying to some but an insight into the songs for others. For instance, on his 2001 tour Oberst hit the road with six females backing him, considerably changing up the dynamic from the group on the album.
Whether you enter the venue and see only Conor Oberst and an acoustic guitar, or him and 16 of his close friends on stage, Bright Eyes is sure to be an exciting, emotionally-charged show.