Bright Eyes & Jenny and Johnny @ HMV Institute, Birmingham, 8 July 2011


So you like Johnathan Rice and you like Jenny Lewis; but which one is the best? There’s only one way to find out… stick them in one band, call them Jenny and Johnny and get ready for fireworks. However, far from either artist fighting for space in a physical and sonic sense, they compliment each other as well artistically as they do emotionally.

I had not heard their current album “I’m Having Fun Now” before tonight’s gig, but it is the first thing I buy the next day. I knew of Jenny’s work with Rilo Kiley and saw them support Bright Eyes on the 2005 tour, so am not surprised how good the songwriting still is, however, the live performance in the stunning main room at the Digbeth Institute is a joy to behold. From the wide smile of Jenny’s face to the concentrated angst on Johnny’s; from the country vibe in her voice, to the rawness of his, you cannot take your eyes off them for a second. If Bright Eyes had not been on the bill I would not have gone home shortchanged; Jenny and Johnny are worth the entrance fee alone. Happily the room is pretty much full for the support act and the audience show their utter devotion. Frankly I would have crawled over broken glass to see them.


After what seems like a lifetime, when roadies move on and off the stage endlessly and more and more people squeeze into the hall, Conor and the Bright Eyes band find their way on stage to roars from the crowd. It has been 6 years since I last saw this band and at that time I was besotted; tonight I am more objective as I have a job to do, but after only a few verses, a few screamed vocals from Mr Oberst, some beautiful minor key chord changes and inspired modulations, I am once again choking back tears of joy.

Bright Eyes cover a large amount of their back catalogue during the two hours on stage, but with so much material, something has to be missed out. Of course there are songs I wait for that don’t appear, however, the setlist is jampacked with classic, heartbreaking songs of such great beauty, all played with maximum commitment, that only a harsh critic would be disappointed.


I guess Bright Eyes is an acquired taste and vocally there is a marmite thing going on: some people I know find Conor’s breaking vocal style utterly awful and contrived, whereas I find it beautifully raw, honest and real.. I admit there are times when too much Bright Eyes is really just too much, but all the same there are not many that can say so much about their emotional turmoil with just a few tuneful human grunts and screeches.

Obviously the quality of the lyrics lifts Bright Eyes out of the emo/indie gutter and they shine like beacons of hope in Digbeth tonight, the way the floodlights punctuate the evening’s proceedings, illuminating the audience and room in all its glory. And every time the lighting engineer fires these bright white lights off, I can clearly see the entire audience is carried along with the energy pouring from the stage, and they are enraptured. It is one of the few times in recent years when during a quiet guitar and vocal track, there is not a sound from the audience: no talking at all – everyone in the room is completely memorized by the music and Conor’s unquestionable magnetism. The only time there is a sound from the gathered crowd is when they sing along, and man do they sing.


Conor appears to have come to terms with being a frontman and talks often between songs and delights in spinning on stage like a whirling dervish, during musical interludes; he even takes time to leave the stage to sing amongst his adoring crowd. His joy is amplified during the band introductions in the encores, where each band member is given one funky minute to take a bow: the way the band leader implores the audience to ‘give it up’ for each musician shows total dedication to the cause.
So you like Bright Eyes and you like Jenny and Johnny, but which is the best? Well there really is only one way to find out… go and see this tour before they all go home: it is really unmissable.

Setlist from:

Jejune Stars
Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
Four Winds
Bowl of Oranges
Something Vague
Trees Get Wheeled Away
Lover I Don’t Have to Love
Shell Games
Approximate Sunlight
Arc of Time (Time Code)
Triple Spiral
Cartoon Blues
Landlocked Blues
Hot Knives
Poison Oak
Another Travelin’ Song
The Calendar Hung Itself…
Ladder Song
Wrecking Ball (Gillian Welch cover) (with Jenny and Johnny)
Road to Joy
One For You, One For Me

Review – Al Neilson
Photos – Steve Gerrard

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