When Conor Oberst was last in Melbourne with his Mystic Valley Band, they were in the midst of a worldwide tour between their two albums. Their set was filled with songs sung by the band’s other members, as well as songs which had yet to be released. The audience was frustrated, hearing a near two hour set filled predominantly by music they had yet to familiarise themselves with. Calls for “Lua!” and “Four Winds!” fell on deaf ears.

Whilst that certainly wasn’t the case this time round with Bright Eyes at the HiFi bar, it seems the joys associated with belonging to a fully-fledged rock and roll outfit like the Mystic Valley Band aren’t ones Conor is willing to let go of just yet. However, the re-appropriation of Bright Eyes from a folk-country outfit to an anthemic rock and roll live show yielded mixed results.

Before the crowd had the chance to see Bright Eyes, there were two support bands to check out. Up first were The Fuzzbirds, a group of sixteen year old kids tearing up Datsuns-esque riffs with a young Jack White on vocals. Whilst their riffs were primitive and their stage presence unsure; these kids are tight, creative, and have the potential to be a Cherry Bar favourite. Next up was Emma Russack, a sultry, soft spoken songwriter from Melbourne. Her husky whisper was oftentimes drowned out by the noise of the crowd, however the vocal harmonies and Widowspeak inspired sparse lead guitar parts were always captivating.

After a short wait, Bright Eyes made their way onstage. Along with Conor, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, the band consisted of bass, keys and two drummers. They opened with ‘Four Winds’, with the fiddle line replicated to great effect by Mike Mogis on lead guitar. It took until after riveting performances of both ‘Old Soul Song’ and ‘Landlocked Blues’ for Conor to first talk to the adoring crowd.

He seemed shy and reluctant, all up until someone in the crowd wolf-whistled, and then he seemed to take on the persona of sex-symbol rock and roll front man. Slinking about the stage and acting out the words as he sang ‘Approximated Sunlight’, it was an entirely unfamiliar Bright Eyes present. Conor carried this newfound sensuality into a thrilling rendition of ‘Lover I Don’t Have To Love’.

Their set lifted a great deal from their newest album and 2005’s seminal pieces I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. The latter’s tracks translated well, with ‘Gold Mine Gutted’ being a particular highlight. The tracks from I’m Wide Awake… were inconsistent. During crowd favourite ‘Lua’ every time the crowd’s singing was noticeable, Conor would shift the vocal rhythms, making the sing-along impossible. ‘Road To Joy’ was overburdened by extended soloing and instrumental breaks.

It was a divisive Bright Eyes. Ridding themselves of their folkier elements and emphasising how hard they can rock would always yield mixed results. And while ‘Four Winds’, ‘Lover I Don’t Have to Love’ and ‘The Calender Hung Itself’ all sounded great, the demonic vocal effects thrown onto ‘Cartoon Blues’, the duelling drum solos of ‘Road to Joy’ and Conor’s insistence on acting out every word he sang all reeked of over-indulgence.

Shouldn’t expect Bright Eyes to perform a completely crowd pleasing set, though. On ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves’ from Lifted, Conor asserts “I am not singing for you.” I guess he means it.

– Alastair Matcott