A triumphant homecoming for Conor Oberst and company.
A joyous return for one of Omaha’s oldest and most beloved concert venues.
A beautiful night for a certain segment of music lovers in Omaha.
As Bright Eyes played a sold-out concert at the 1,400-capacity formerly known as Sokol Auditorium, Saturday night at The Admiral was all three. And for those of us who have seen Bright Eyes and Oberst numerous times and stood on that old wood floor a whole lot more, it felt like being at home.
Bright Eyes dropped a career-spanning set, reaching as far back as songs Oberst wrote in his Omaha bedroom at age 15 to tunes from the band’s most recent album, and Oberst was as enthusiastic, active and emotional as I’ve ever seen him.
He howled into the microphone during Lover I Don’t Have to Love. He danced across the stage during Dance and Sing.
I have seen Oberst a lot. I’ve seen Bright Eyes a lot, too. Saturday night’s show was easily the best performance I’ve seen them give.
Bright Eyes is the internationally famous Omaha indie rock band that led the charge of putting our Midwestern city on the national musical map. Leading the band is the equally famous singer-songwriter Oberst performing alongside collaborators and multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nathaniel Walcott. Mogis was unfortunately sidelined for the homecoming by coming down with COVID, but Walcott and Mogis were backed by a full rock band as well as a string quartet and four-person horn section that gave every song new heft. It also allowed the band to change up arrangements for familiar songs they’ve likely performed — and the fans have heard — dozens and dozens of times.
The Admiral debuts its renovations
That this tour-ending Bright Eyes concert came at The Admiral — a venue they’ve played innumerable times — was a special treat for the band and fans.
“I’ve played on this stage a million times. It certainly looks different,” Oberst said. “I’m happy you guys are here.”
Then he joked: They have actual bathrooms you can use. That’s a new development!”
The experience of the former Sokol Auditorium is largely the same. Park in the neighborhood and hoof it a few blocks to the old brick building originally constructed in 1926. Go inside, walk up the stairs and scan your ticket. Step inside the cavernous room and enjoy the show.
The old gym’s wood floors are still the same. The chandelier still hangs above. The cell signal inside the old building is still nearly nonexistent. The stage, the balcony, the architectural flourishes are all the same.
But then you start to notice the little things. The interior paint scheme — black with gold accents — makes the entire venue feel bigger. Twice as many bathrooms are a welcome addition. As is the relocation of the bar from a cramped corner of the venue to the concert hall’s adjacent room. The bar now spans the length of the venue, making it much easier for customers to get their libations without missing out on the show. Two massive windows above the bar also make the boxy room feel more open.
There’s way better lighting from a new rig, and the venue has a much larger backstage. (Bands used to hate the lack of dressing rooms or really any backstage at all.)
The short version: Everything you love about Sokol Auditorium is still there. All the things about it that annoyed you have been fixed.
Oh and the sound system: It was fantastic.
Bright Eyes sounded fantastic
For Bright Eyes, it meant that those songs and that horn section and the strings and Oberst’s voice sounded amazing.
It was a sonically diverse rock concert, and it might have been a bit muddy in the old Sokol. But in The Admiral, the French horn and Oberst’s strumming on “First Day of My Life” filled the concert hall. The strings on “I Believe in Symmetry” soared over the song. We were immersed in the music, and it made for a memorable performance.
Fans were certainly ready to see Bright Eyes. Saturday’s show was the first time the famed indie rock band has played the area since 2011. The band went on hiatus after that with Oberst concentrating on his solo projects while Mogis produced bands at his ARC studio and Walcott toured and played with other musicians. Mogis and Walcott also did some film scores.
But after a nine-year hiatus, the trio announced their reunion and the imminent release of a new album, “Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.” But by the time the album was released, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the concert industry shut down and the band never toured the material.
Not until recently anyway. Bright Eyes has been on a near-constant tour since late March, playing some of the nation’s most storied venues on their way to the tour-closing two-night stand in Omaha.
No problems here
Though earlier portions of the tour were marked by erratic behavior from Oberst — he injured himself in a fall, forgot lyrics to songs and once exited the stage minutes into the show — none of that was on display in Omaha.
While his voice did sound a bit scratchy — likely from singing night after night on a grueling tour — it didn’t detract from his performance. And Oberst entered into a few expected speeches between songs: introducing “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)” by reminiscing about George W. Bush and offering some expletives for Donald Trump, lamenting the lack of Mogis at the show and stressing that COVID was still very much present in the world, calling his music cynical but offering a message of connectedness and hope before closing the night with “One For Your, One For Me.”
Oberst was on-point, active and enthusiastic. Having seen him and his bands in various configurations to the point where he’s the artist I’ve seen perform more than any other, I have experiences to compare.
Saturday’s Bright Eyes concert at The Admiral was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen him give and now tops the lengthy list of Bright Eyes concerts I’ve attended.
It seemed that way for Oberst and Bright Eyes, too.
“Thank you so much for listening,” Oberst said at the end of the night. “Love y’all. We’ll see you soon.”
Kevin is the host of Pops and Hisses, a music podcast featuring artist interviews with bands you love and opinions backed by decades as an award-winning music critic, podcaster, writer and photographer. Follow Kevin on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.