AUSTIN, Texas — When one thinks of Conor Oberst, a 130-year-old opera house probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Or the second, for that matter.
And yet, on Friday night at South by Southwest, there was Oberst and his [artist id="1162817"]Bright Eyes[/artist] band, standing beneath the crystal chandeliers and velvet drapes of the Austin Club, a lavish, limestone-layered building first opened in 1878 as the Millett Opera House. The occasion wasn’t a wedding or a banquet (both of which the club plays host to on the regular these days), but rather, an AOL Pop Up Show, announced only hours beforehand, much to the delight of fans and SXSWers alike, who lined up early and hoped against hope that they’d be one of the lucky ones to snag a spot inside.
Of course, most were turned away. But the folks who made it past the front doors were treated to a shambling, rambling (though all-too-brief) Bright Eyes set, as Oberst and his six-piece ensemble ran roughshod over songs from the past decade of his songbook.
Needless to say, the band probably felt a little out of place — at one point, after surveying his stuffy surroundings, Oberst joked, “Have you guys ever been to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland? Very soon the walls will start stretching to the stratosphere” — but if they were uncomfortable, they didn’t show it, starting somberly with “An Attempt to Tip the Scales” (from 2000′s Fevers and Mirrors) and building steam on “Hot Knives” (from ’07′s Cassadaga), the former featuring Oberst’s warm, warbling vocals and the latter a stirring mix of wiring, winding guitars and wind-swept synths.
“Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” powered along with a pair of drummers, with Oberst flailing and hammering out chords on his electric guitar, and “Jejune Stars” (from his just-released The People’s Key disc) was an exercise in frayed, frazzled fret abuse.
Of course, most Bright Eyes fans prefer Oberst’s softer side, and they got that on “Beginner’s Mind,” which he prefaced with, “The next song is about trying not to become a cynical a–hole,” and, thanks to some nifty vocal effects, sang as if his voice was at the bottom of a well. He also delivered a shuffling, austere take on “Bowl of Oranges.”
He brought things to a hush with the stirring “Poison Oak,” which started off whisper quiet, grew louder on winsome guitars, and then positively unspooled into an impressive din, pushed forward by a pealing organ line. The band continued that momentum with “The Calendar Hung Itself,” a walloping, clomping stomper featuring dueling drummers and a blaring horn line.
And then, like most Bright Eyes sets, the band finished with “Road to Joy,” which built to a froth and then, as Oberst spat, “Let’s f— it up, boys, make some noise!” boiled over into a squall of feedback and horns and organs. The crowd — some of whom had been waiting more than eight hours for this moment — losing their collective mind, surging forward and creating several worried looks amongst the Austin Club staff (thankfully, none of the good china was broken).
And when the band departed from the stage, the crowd chanted for an encore that never came. It was about the only down moment of the evening, but as those fans filed down the building’s ornate staircase and out into the Austin night, you got the feeling they weren’t focusing on the negative. It just didn’t seem proper, given the surroundings.