Bright Eyes & Louisa Nicklin – The Powerstation: November 7, 2023

It’s been a long time, but 18 years after their NZ debut, Bright Eyes have returned to Auckland bringing their aptly-named For The First Time In Forever Tour to the Powerstation.

There was a chill in the air but the vibe was warm as fans began filling up the venerable venue. It wasn’t a sell-out, but just under, as Kiwi musicians such as members  The Beths, The Bads and Mermaidens were spotted among the growing crowd.

Louisa Nicklin

Louisa NicklinFirst up, local gal Louisa Nicklin gets things underway with a solo set that immediately turns heads, particularly when she sang a cover of Sea Of Love, a tune best known by Phil Phillips, Robert Plant or Cat Power, depending on your age.

Bright Eyes

At 9:25 the strains of the children’s folk song, Go Tell Aunt Rhody usher in the members of Bright Eyes. These days they are founders Conor Oberst (vocals & guitar), Mike Mogis (guitar & pedal steel), Nate Walcott (keyboards & trumpet) along with new recruits MiVi La Lupa (bass & flugelhorn) and Maria Taylor (drums & backing vocals).

The band had been on a self-enforced hiatus from 2007 til 2020 when they reconvened, released their 10th studio album, Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was, and then were side-lined again, this time by the pandemic.

So, Aunt Rhody stops and Bright Eyes comes crashing in with An Attempt To Tip The Scales from 2000’s Fevers And Mirrors.

“Did you expect it all to stop, at the wave of your hand?” Oberst sings while the band fires on all cylinders. Bright Eyes is clearly back.

And back for a long, career-spanning set that features 19 songs in just over two hours.

Bright EyesOberst straps on his harmonica as they follow with Gold Mine Gutted and Walcott’s trumpet makes the first of many appearances providing a mournful howl at the end of the tune along with the harmonica.

On paper, the band’s make-up is fairly standard…two guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, but the sound they make is anything but standard, especially with flourishes of trumpet, mandolin and pedal steel.

And then there are the songs.

Conor Oberst is one of his generation’s most prodigious talents, often touching on themes of addiction, depression and the usual bad relationships. But his voice and delivery is uniquely his own bringing sadness, nostalgia, empathy and love in equal measure.

His on-stage personae is somewhat shambolic, his comments often sounding muffled, disjointed or vaguely incoherent, yet, like his songs, he connects with his audience, who were, on this night, on their best behaviour, hanging on to every word, every lyric, every note.

Leading into Mariana Trench, a highlight of the latest album, Conor brought up the pandemic and his perception that New Zealand had “the least deaths for Covid in the world”. His kind, but maybe inaccurate, statement drew a smattering of applause, but his comment about the “psychopath for president” in the US was much more popular.

Politics aside, this was a night of many musical highlights.

Bright EyesMariana Trench saw Oberst turn into a whirling dervish while the poignant Poison Oak riveted the audience with its emotional intimacy.

Oberst told a touching story about his dad taking care of him as a child before Forced Convalescence and that was followed by a cover of Warren Zevon’s Carmelita, a personal favourite that was also just covered by Pluto at the Wine Cellar a week or so ago.

The set lost a little steam at the halfway mark due to an extended guitar tuning moment…”we’ll get there” assured Conor. And they did.

First Day Of My Life was another standout as was Persona Non Grata, with Oberst taking to the keyboard.

“Are you guys getting bored?” he asks.

That’s a hard “no”.

And so we head to the finish line with Shell Games, Hit The Switch and Ladder Son,… Bright Eyes in all their ragged glory.

By now it’s after 11pm, but there’s more to come…but it takes a while to get there.

We are treated to an inside scoop on how Conor and Nate plan to open a “hybrid community centre” in Wellington when the tour ends in a few days. Named “Two Shakes”, the endeavour will feature a sheep farm, a vineyard, a laundromat, a dog rescue and bumper cars…and whatever comes into their heads at the moment.

Two Shakes may be a pipe dream, but the last three songs are very real.

Lover I Don’t Have To Love finds both horns blaring, while Another Travelin’ Song is preceded by the sounds of a young girl talking about her pet dog…I’m pretty sure that’s Shirley Temple from a clip from the 1934 film Bright Eyes.

Finally, after a false start, Lua takes us home with drummer Maria Taylor harmonizing with Conor. Actually, by this time the entire room was in harmony.

A very special evening.

Marty Duda

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Bright Eyes:

Louisa Nicklin:

Bright Eyes setlist:
  1. An Attempt To Tip The Scales
  2. Gold Mine Gutted
  3. We Are Nowhere And It’s Now
  4. Down A Rabbit Hole
  5. Mariana Trench
  6. Southern State
  7. Method Acting
  8. Poison Oak
  9. Forced Convalescence
  10. Carmelita
  11. I Won’t Ever Be Happy Again
  12. First Day Of My Life
  13. Persona Non Grata
  14. Shell Games
  15. Hit The Switch
  16. Ladder Song
  17. Lover I Don’t Have To Love
  18. Another Travelin’ Song
  19. Lua