The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., is among the best concert venues in the U.S., and it very well may be the best. An old church, as well as the long-ago home of the Grand Ole Opry, everyone sits in pews and stained-glass windows line the top of the back wall. When the lights go down, the show starts and the oft-referenced “ghosts of the Ryman” take over, it’s time for the performers to get down to business.
Acoustically speaking, no venue gives artists so much in return for their effort. The wide-open space fills with music, but the sound doesn’t get muddy. At some places you see a show, the sound hits the back wall and bounces all around the room in all directions, creating an unfortunate echo that destroys what you’re hearing. In the Ryman, this simply doesn’t happen.
Everyone that plays the Ryman brings their A game. My Morning Jacket wore suits for their appearance. Jeff Tweedy and Sufjan Stevens stood on the edge of the stage and played completely un-amplified. The reverence performers have for the Ryman just adds to the special feeling surrounding the place, and there’s an elevated air to everything that takes place in the building.
This is why I was kind of nervous when I found out Conor Oberst would be playing a show there.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Bright Eyes’ music. Oberst is a damn good songwriter and arranger, and some of his songs touch me in a most profound way. But you hear things. One friend told me that a few years back at a show in Columbus, the band was standing on stage for some time without Conor, who was backstage drinking. He then stumbled out and played for 45 minutes with no encore, openly combative with the crowd the whole time. Another friend told me that earlier on this very tour, he pretty much had to be carried off-stage at the end of the show in Milwaukee because he was so wasted. Hearing these stories, I got the sense that the guy is kind of a hit-or-miss proposition in the live setting, and, above all else, I just hoped he’d cut the bullshit and give the venue what it deserved.
Whatever else you have to say about the guy, on May 19 in Nashville he put on a damn good show. And yes, in the end, that is all that matters.
Before we get to Bright Eyes, though, we have to discuss opener Gillian Welch. She and her performing partner, David Rawlings, showed everyone how you play the Ryman. Gorgeous music and perfect harmonies held the audience spellbound, in a state of almost spiritual exaltation. I can’t stress enough how beautiful the music these two people made was or how captivating Rawlings’ guitar playing is. The show sold out, and almost as many people were there for Welch as Bright Eyes. She and Rawlings represented for the town in a big way. After a set full of originals, they rocked out “Jackson” to end the set with a smile, not to mention a raucous standing O. The feeling after Welch and Rawlings finished was that Oberst had a tough act to follow, one that might be impossible to top, considering the city and the venue.
He damn well did what he could.
Oberst designed this tour as a massive audio/visual experience. The busy set design kept your attention wrapped up in the show, with two drum sets and a percussion stand, 12 band members (including a six-piece orchestra), white suits on everyone, a polka-dotted hoody on the bass player and colorful flowers everywhere. Not only this, but the backing projection screen featured art being made on the spot by someone up with the light guy, a person alternately painting, doodling and showing snapshots of the tour.
The next time she becomes available, there will be a rush of people trying to claim former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss’ services. Oberst hit the jackpot enlisting her in his band, as her harsh, meaty drumming adds a certain weight and propulsion to his music. His live arrangements of the songs, particularly “First Day of My Life,” were spectacular, and the music was loud and rocking.
The polar opposite of Welch’s pared-down set, and heavy on new material (he played almost all of Cassadaga), the sheer ambition of the sound achieved was remarkable, what with so much going on aurally at once, so much sound filling the space. The way Oberst designed the set demanded a lot of attention, and the way his band came through rewarded that attention.
As for Oberst himself, well, he’s amazingly talented. Yes, he was pounding drinks hard all show, and it seemed to be having an effect toward the end. He’s a pompous dude as well, and his constant strutting around stage with his guitar, getting in the face of whoever’s turn it was to carry the song for a bit, got pretty old. His over-annunciation definitely grated after a while.
He explained at one point, “We’ve recently become hippies, if you hadn’t noticed,” turning and pointing to all the flowers. He drunkenly rambled about overqualified artists making a living playing bars, how there’s no “success/quality parallel and everyone knows that,” losing the crowd to the point that someone yelled, “Hey, get drunk!”. When Welch and Rawlings joined him onstage late in the show, he shouted, “Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, everybody, holy shit!”. More than a few times he fell back on the vocal crutch, “That’s what I’m talking about,” all the while gulping whatever was in that red plastic cup.
But you don’t have to love a performer or his behavior to appreciate his art. Bright Eyes put on a crisp, powerful show punctuated by a passionate encore with Welch and Rawlings and a heartbreaking “Lua,” with Oberst accompanied by only the two of them, to end it. Early in the show, he played a song with only Rawlings, actually abdicating the spotlight from time to time. Welch and Rawlings seemed like they were honestly having a great time touring, playing and writing songs with Oberst.
Really, it was a hell of a show. All the cute girls wearing hair clips and indie-rock outfits got to crush hard on Oberst in person, all the awkward indie-rock guys got to crush hard on the indie-rock girls and Mr. Oberst gave an at times transcendent performance that no doubt left those Ryman ghosts smiling and applauding along with everybody else.
All that worry for nothing.