Just prior to the COVID prompted shutdown in the spring of 2020, Yale’s Connecticut Tennis Center had been announced to reopen that summer as Westville Bowl, a premiere outdoor venue in the heart of New Haven, CT. Lineups included Andrew Bird, Calexico, Iron & Wine, The National, Sharon Van Etten, and King Crimson among others. We all know what followed for the next year and a half and would just as soon forget it altogether. Still there were remnants of the pandemic present on what would otherwise be a perfect summer day for an outdoor show.
Lucy Dacus, originally the only opener for headliners Bright Eyes, took the stage at 6:30 to make room for last minute addition Japanese Breakfast who were originally slated to play the following week down the street at College Street Music Hall. While 6:30 is on the earlier side of typical set times, dedicated Dacus fans aplenty packed the floor and lower perimeter of the bowl to catch the indie darling singer-songwriter whose latest album Home Video was released in late June by Matador Records. Although Dacus had steadily garnered critical acclaim from her first two albums as well as her collaboration with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers as supergroup boygenius, it was her latest album that landed her in the spotlight.
Dacus and fellow band members took the stage with the sun hanging low and bright in the cloud free sky, opening their set with the final track off of Home Video “Triple Dog Dare”. After addressing the crowd Dacus lowered her heart shaped shades from atop her head and launched into the aptly themed “First Time”. Despite the spacious venue, Dacus connected intimately with her fans as many sang each lyric along with her. With her iconic red lipstick and Fender telecaster Dacus continued her set with 2 more songs from her latest release with notable singles “Hot & Heavy” and “Brando” before delving into her back catalog. “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” from her debut album No Burden was one upped by the clear fan favorite of the early evening, “Night Shift” from 2018’s Historian. Dacus thanked the dedicated and enthusiastic crowd, waving and leaving them with the parting words: “I love you all!”
The late add Japanese Breakfast was up next and felt like a headlining act in and of themselves with the crowd swelling to at least double in size. It’s no wonder, the ride Michelle Zuaner has been on since the release of Crying in H Mart: A Memoir as well as her latest album Jubilee has been meteoric. Of course, her latest album, which had been 3 years in the making, was delayed an additional year due to the pandemic thus resulting in the release of her New York Times bestseller and third album almost simultaneously.
As the early evening settled into what is often referred to as the golden hour, Zauner and company took to the stage to hoots, hollers, and whistles from the eager crowd. Donning a white eyelet embroidered ruffle dress with black straps and over the knee black leather boots, Zauner bounced about the stage with mic in hand and a smile from ear to ear. Opening with the first two tracks from Jubilee, Zauner wielded a gong mallet for “Paprika” while grasping her wireless mic in both hands for the upbeat and rhythmic “Be Sweet”. Zauner and company reached back to 2016’s Psychopomp for the next two tracks with “In Heaven” and “The Woman That Loves You” before returning to 2021 with “Kokomo, IN”. Cult classic “Boyish” from Zauner’s days in her first band, Little Big League had die hard fans dancing in delight. Zauner briefly interjected that she was downright giddy to be opening for Bright Eyes, a band she had once reviewed for her local school paper and who needless to say received a very positive review! The remainder of their set was divided across all three albums with hits including “Savage Good Boy,” “Posing in Bondage,” “Road Head” and “Diving Woman” from Soft Sounds From Another Planet, as well as “Slide Tackle” and “Everybody Wants to Love You.” If there was any question as to the status of the once fledgling indie outfit from Philly, rest assured they are now legitimately “Jimmy Fallon Big”.
Finally, and not without their own pandemic story, headliners Bright Eyes took to the stage as darkness finally befell Westville Bowl. From their quietly ignored yet ambitious first release in almost a decade, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was to their delayed 2020 tour, Conor Oberst and company set out to make good on their original plans from over a year ago. With a small chamber orchestra in tow, Bright Eyes took to the road in 2021 to realize their original plans, and needless to say it was worth the wait.
Opening with “Dance and Sing”, their set featured heavily from Down in the Weeds… but also spanned their ambitious career from their 1999 EP Everyday and Everynight with “Neely O’Hara” as well as “Something Vague” from their 2000 release Fevers and Mirrors right on through 2011’s The People’s Key with “Jejune Stars”, “Ladder Song”, and “Shell Games”. With each band member donning black and white garb, Oberst thrashed about youthfully from piano to guitar to vocals only. While his salt and pepper hair matched the theme of his outfit, it felt anachronistic to his dynamic showmanship flaunted for the better part of 90 minutes. Closing their set with “Comet Song”, the band, intentionally or not, conjured visions from the cold, dark days of the pandemic:
The city shines
A silver street lamp glistens in the snow
Shiver as I’m walking by
Just knowing what I know
I guess this wild wanderlust
Just got out of control
Wish I could apologize
And come in from the cold
Not to leave on a solemn note, Oberst and company returned for a rousing three song encore including “First Day of My Life”, “I Believe in Symmetry”, and “Easy/Lucky/Free” respectively. For fans of any and all bands that performed this evening…it was well worth the wait. Until next time, whenever that may be…
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