Oberst took to the role with no hesitation, which wasn’t supposed to happen, mind you — not according to accounts of shows from the early aughts, the ones with him perched on barstools because he was too nervous to sing standing up, and not from the mounds of magazine clippings sketching him as a frightened kid burdened by the “wunderkind” label press keeps tossing his way. But, sure enough, there he was, spending every moment not strumming a guitar or playing the piano (“Lover I Don’t Have to Love” was treated to satisfying amounts of angst on said piano) pacing the stage, acting out the songs with exaggerated gestures. He shot an imaginary rifle ("Landlocked Blues"), he puffed up his chest ("The Calendar Hung Itself"), he shot fireworks into the sky and waved his arms around like "a swaying palm tree" (“Shell Games“), never holding back, never too weighed down by his words to be a showman, a preacher, a concerned citizen, or a rallier.
In the end, this only put more emphasis on his every word — lyrics are still very much the name of Oberst's game, in case there was any doubt. For this crowd, you got the sense that every song meant something to everyone, that each track ticked off during the two-hour-plus set was associated with at least one Major Life Moment between the thousands gathered by the water, and now it came accompanied by an opportunity to work itself out through group catharsis. (The "failure's always sounded better, lets fuck it up boys, make some noise" part in "Road to Joy," for the record, is meant to be sung together by throngs of people I am now absolutely sure). “Ohmigod, he sounded perfect, that was amazing” was a verbatim recurring line in-between songs from the guy standing to my right. They came devoted and prepared to sing, and not always in key or with enough patience to wait for the six-piece band onstage to join them. The end, then, seemed fitting: Oberst worked his way back to the piano for The People's Key comedown "Ladder Song" before leaving for an encore. "You're not alone in anything/You're not alone in trying to be" were the the last lines sung. And, that, folks — that feeling of group catharsis — is the reason I like to think live music exists.
...That, and to hear Bright Eyes play the rare live rendition of "Let's Not Shit Ourselves," which he also did, after warning the crowd that “This might get sketchy, but I have a feeling you won't care.” Nobody cared.
Photos by Nadia Chaudhury