Story and Photos: Spencer Fleming
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Now back to the story....
Last night (7/2) was amazing! I swear I got a little bit of sleep but I think my adrenaline is still going. Don't be surprised to find me passed out in a lawn chair somewhere later, but for now, let's recap all the good stuff that went down in South Omaha.
After several months of construction/supply chain delays The Admiral (formerly Sokol Auditorium) is finally ready for shows! How serendipitous that their first show back would be two nights with Omaha's own Bright Eyes. Playing to a sold-out crowd, Bright Eyes put on a spectacle of sights and sounds that won't soon be forgotten.
If you're unfamiliar, Bright Eyes centers around singer-songwriter Conor Oberst. For over 25 years Conor and a rotating cast of Indie musicians have been writing and recording music, most notably for the Indie label Saddle Creek records, based in Omaha. Other notable acts that have been a part of Saddle Creek include The Faint, Cursive, Azure Ray, and Criteria, just to name a few.
I've been following Saddle Creek since the early 2000s and have had the opportunity to see the majority of acts on their roster, many of them at The Admiral. But the last time I saw Bright Eyes was in 2005 when their tour with The Faint made a stop in Council Bluffs at the Mid-America Center. This was when Saddle Creek was at the peak of their powers, but even then the thought of our beloved hometown Indie bands in an arena was just mind blowing. I really enjoyed that show but after so many years had passed I was curious to see how Conor and the band would sound live and would they hold up to a memory from my youth.
Not only did Bright Eyes sound fantastic, their performance exceeded my every expectation. The band was on fire, Conor kept the ranting to a minimum, and he seemed genuinely happy to be playing to his hometown crowd. Combined with the excitement of the grand opening of The Admiral, it was a magical evening.
If you were to drive by The Admiral you wouldn't think much has changed. The building looks the same, the marquee is still there, and the parking is a bit of a crap-shoot. As I walked up to the doors I was greeted by the same friendly security staff and everything felt like old times.
However, as soon as the doors opened it hit me, air conditioning! From the moment I stepped inside I could feel that game-changing AC blowing through the room. I spent so many nights dancing to the pulsing beat of The Faint only to look over and see the mirrored walls sweating from all the heat. When people would bring up Sokol Auditorium I would always say I really liked the venue but they needed AC. Well now they have it and it's amazing!
As I stepped into the AC I was warmly greeted by my security buddies and they already had my media info ready. I felt like royalty! They had me step over and get my photo pass and a wristband so I could take shots from the new VIP balcony area. To not have to show someone an email after they say "Who are you again? I don't have you on the list" is an absolute dream. Shout out to Justin Strawstone from Nice Enough Entertainment working the door/security. I see you putting in work everywhere brother!
One of the first things I noticed inside was the merch room. Where the old bar used to sit is now a little room where they had all the merch set up. As you make your way a little further in there's a long bar where the gym area was. Everything has been re-done with black walls and gold trim. It's a very cool art-deco aesthetic. The chandelier still hangs and the stage looks the same, but the lighting and sound have been upgraded.
As I made my way to the photo pit to get ready to shoot the opening act Hurray for the Riff Raff I ran into Zach from (Atlanta?) Sorry I don't recall the exact city, but the point is he and his people traveled many miles to catch the show. They were getting ready to leave the night before and their plane was cancelled 40 minutes before their scheduled departure. Their only flight option to Omaha put them in at 5:30PM Saturday. They didn't want to chance it being so close to showtime so they flew into Kansas City, hired an Uber, and made the three hour trip to Omaha. Talk about dedication! Along with Zach there were some other folks who traveled in from all over the U.S. including Houston, Boston, and Connecticut, just to name a few.
Before Bright Eyes we heard from Hurray for the Riff Raff. I remembered shooting them at Maha Festival a few years back. Hailing from New Orleans by way of the Bronx, the band is fronted by singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra. In her youth Alynda spent time traveling across the country hopping freight trains. The band has settled in New Orleans and has released several albums independently and on various record labels. They're currently with Nonesuch Records.
Hurray for the Riff Raff got the crowd swaying with some sultry synth vibes before amping things up with some pop-rock grooves. The band had a wide range of sounds even bringing out some horns at one point. It was a great way to start the evening.
After shooting the first three songs from the photo pit I made my way to the new VIP balcony to see all the upgrades. The first thing I noticed was the hallways going up to the balcony level have been completely re-done. Gone are the creaky narrow stairs. They've been replaced by black rubber stairs with gold handrails. Upstairs the balcony feels much more stable. The old rickety iron railing has been replaced with a sturdy gold railing all the way around.
Instead of the bleacher seats in the back there's now a small section of theatre type seats in addition to the standing room on both sides. Towards the back of the balcony through a set of doors sits a brand new bar and a new set of bathrooms! 1% Productions really went all out turning this nearly 100-year-old building into a fresh new space.
One thing I noticed was even though the show was sold out the VIP area was a bit light on patrons. If this is by design it's a pretty cool move. I remember the days when a sold out show meant hundreds of fans squished into the balcony with standing-room only. With the new VIP area there were folks lined against the railing all the way around but the standing room wasn't rows deep so everyone had a great view.
Around 9:30 Bright Eyes took the stage to a warm welcome of applause from the hometown crowd. Conor stepped out in full black with swoopy long hair rivaling the likes of Gerard Way, Brendon Urie, or Pete Wentz. As the band kicked into "Dance And Sing" from their latest album Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was Conor let out a crazy scream and then whimsically twirled about the stage. The crowd cheered and sang along to the rich full sound.
Conor has toured with several iterations of Bright Eyes throughout the years going from stripped down acoustic to a packed stage of instruments. I prefer the latter personally. Behind Conor was a row of strings and horns and a rhythm section. Flanking the front of the stage was an additional drum/guitar/keyboard station and to his left sat Nate Walcott and his tower of organs and synths. The only thing missing was Bright Eyes founding member/producer Mike Mogis who was sidelined with COVID.
After "Dance And Sing" Conor sat at the piano for "Lover I Don't Have To Love". Those iconic opening keys got the crowd amped. Conor strapped on an acoustic guitar for one of the band's bigger folk hits "Bowl Of Oranges" before addressing the crowd. Conor went on to thank everyone for coming and kept it pretty brief, for now.
After another couple songs Conor went on a rant about George W. Bush, Pete Ricketts, and baseball teams. From what I could follow he was relating how George W. Bush's family owns the Texas Rangers and Pete Ricketts family owns the Cubs? Both are men who should've stuck to running baseball teams instead of getting into politics and receiving massive power? Something like that. Luckily the crowd was on his side and cheered at his remarks.
Bright Eyes played a solid set of career spanning hits and deep cuts. Conor mentioned before playing "Falling Out Of Love At This Volume" that "I wrote this song when I was 15 believe it or not". The peak of the set for me personally was "First Day Of My Life" followed by "Calendar Hung Itself". I've loved that song for so long and to get to see it live was absolutely incredible.
The band played 16 songs before a three song encore. Before the last song Conor spoke to the crowd and talked about how most of the people in Omaha probably think he's a jerk, but he's really a kind person. "I really feel that if you do something to hurt yourself it hurts me and if I do something to hurt myself it hurts you. At the end of the day we're all the same". Conor mentioned that while much of their music is sad the last song "One For You, One For Me" is one of the most uplifting things the band has ever written.
I stood at the back in awe of how far Bright Eyes has come and the legendary folk-heroes they are to the city of Omaha. To be in the house for the first show in Admiral history was just amazing.
Quick shout out to Matt from Cursive who I bumped into towards the end of the show. I absolutely love Cursive and try to catch them at every opportunity. To have someone I look up to like that say they like my work just put the cherry on top of this unforgettable show.
A huge thank you to Bright Eyes management for photo access and to the Admiral staff for such great hospitality.
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Hurray for the Riff Raff
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