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Behind First Avenue’s Stars: Bright Eyes

A flyer from Bright Eyes' 2003 show at First Avenue

In First Avenue’s 45th year as a landmark concert venue that attracts world-famous acts to Minneapolis, we’re telling the stories behind some of the stars from First Ave’s popular Wall of Fame. Today, it’s Bright Eyes: Conor Oberst’s orchestral indie rock group from the heart of the Midwest in Omaha, Nebraska. With Oberst’s solo return to the Twin Cities on Saturday at Rock the Garden—13 years after Bright Eyes first played the Mainroom—we’re taking a look at the indie rock group’s history at the venerated venue, which Oberst has called “a national treasure.”

Bright Eyes are led by the so-called kid genius who, alongside Saddle Creek Records, put Nebraska on the map as an unexpectedly fertile hub of indie rock talent. Today, 20 years after Bright Eyes was formed, Conor Oberst still displays the sensitive, emotional honesty he’s been known for since he stepped onto the music scene at age 13.

Oberst pilots Bright Eyes but has also been involved in many groups such as Desaparecidos, Commander Venus, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk, and Arab Strap (a band whose name inspired the title of a 1998 album by Rock the Garden artist Belle & Sebastian). Bright Eyes have released several critically-acclaimed albums, including Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002) followed by I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005) featuring Bright Eyes’ most recognized tune, “First Day Of My Life.”

Bright Eyes first set foot on stage at First Avenue in Sept. 2002, in the wake of the release of Lifted: the group’s fourth album that produced ripples reaching beyond the Midwestern ear. Preceded by the Bruces and M. Ward—later to join Oberst as a member of Monsters of Folk—Bright Eyes’ orchestral indie rock sound adapted a “Noah’s Ark approach to instrumentation (two of everything, from strings to brass to bells),” writes Anders Smith Lindall.

At that show, noted How Was The Show, Oberst made a point of thanking 400 Bar owner Bill Sullivan, who managed that Bright Eyes tour and who Oberst called “the daddy of this tour.” Oberst has a special connection with Sullivan, as he later told Mark Wheat.

It all started with a beautiful gentleman named Bill Sullivan. He was one of the first people outside of Omaha that sort of championed our group of friends’ bands. I met him, and he was always real good to me when I would come play his bar, and he would promote other shows for me, and then I guess it was right before Lifted, it got to the point where we just kind of had to be on a bus, we had this 14-piece band, and we could no longer just all pile into the van. We had to get more professional. And he kind of came out of retirement and ended up tour managing Bright Eyes for like the next six or seven years. We went around the world many times together, and he’s saved my life more than I can count. I owe him a lot.

The group would return to First Ave the next year, with Arab Strap and Head of Femur opening.

Special education teacher, and musician, Michael Gay attended a Bright Eyes concert in 2011 as part of a two-night stand at First Avenue during a tour behind The People’s Key. Gay has been a fan of the group since the early 2000s, after his older brother introduced him to Fevers and Mirrors.

Not much had changed since the collective’s earlier gigs – “[Oberst’s] songs incorporate a lot of auxiliary instrumentation and he brought as much of that as they could, so the setup was pretty interesting,” said Gay. “He played a pretty balanced mix of his catalog, which was a lot of fun…they nailed it. The night I was there I guess someone got engaged and requested ‘First Day of My Life,’ a song he doesn’t play live a lot, but he played it.”

Reviewing that 24-song show for City Pages, Erik Thompson noted some remarks Oberst made from the stage. “We’ve had a lot of good times in this city, and in this room in particular,” said Oberst, according to Thompson.
“It’s the second best place to home. And the people of First Avenue always treat us so well….they even had a bottle of red wine from 1995 waiting here for us.” Oberst then dedicated a 1995 song, “Falling Out of Love at This Volume,” to that very bottle of wine.

UCare financial analyst, and member of music forum Crabwise.net, Dan Sarles is a fan of everything Bright Eyes, Oberst, and First Avenue.

“Each time I have seen [Oberst], it is a new and unique experience. Oberst is very good at re-building his song catalog with each tour. Last year, when Oberst was at First Ave with Dawes, a lot of his set was supported by Dawes. That was pretty fantastic to see…adding Dawes to Connor Oberst created a unique context for Oberst that served him well at First Ave. The dynamics of the songs went from steady driving to lively and vigorous—as opposed to some of the sit-down shows where the performance tends to be a contrast between the lonesome voice and the raucous [sound] of a 15-piece band. Oberst still pulls out that lonesome voice at First Ave. Last year, ‘You are Your Mother’s Child’ really stood out to me.

“I have been through a lot with First Ave,” continues Sarles. “It’s a place that I have grown with…It’s like a school in a way. For me it’s a place of continued musical education. First Ave does such a great job at guarding their reputation as a place to see, hear, and dance to superb music that I am sure it will be worth the $20 or $30 to take a chance and check out a new musical act…the sound, lights, and atmosphere lend themselves perfectly to a fun night.”

Madie Ley is studying journalism and art history at the University of St. Thomas. She writes about music and art.

Behind First Avenue’s Stars

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Har Mar Superstar
Hüsker Dü
The Magnolias