Oberst at the Ryman, photo by Alyssa Bersamin

On Friday night, two music acts came to the Ryman that gave Nashville a three hour extravaganza and filled the atmosphere with every imaginable emotion simultaneously, from brutal cynicism to aggressive gratitude to bitter contempt. The two acts were Christian Lee Hutson, with his freshly released sophomore LP, Quitters, and indie giant Bright Eyes, who have put out 10 studio albums over the last 27 years. Musically and performatively, the pair couldn’t have seemed further apart. Christian Lee Hutson’s shy, awkward, yet charming demeanor and his warm and intimate voice was put in stark contrast to Conor Oberst’s (Bright Eyes’s lead singer) turbulent, deviant conduct, not to mention his famous trembling voice. At one point I even wondered how Oberst co-produced Quitters, since their personalities are just so dissimilar. For a moment, a world where Phoebe Bridgers, Conor Oberst, and Christian Lee Hutson were all best buds somehow became impossible to imagine. But by the end of the night, I came to realize that Christian Lee Hutson and Bright Eyes were just both expressing two vastly different ways to convey the same sentiments about life: its unfair brutality, laughable absurdity, and its remarkable ability to keep giving us material to make new dark humor jokes.

Christian Lee Hutson and Bright Eyes’s most recent LPs, courtesy of Christian Lee Hutson and Wikipedia commons.

Christian Lee Hutson came on stage with just drummer and bassist, who both performed very unobtrusively and gave Lee Hutson the spotlight. He had an acoustic guitar slung on his neck, stood behind the microphone the whole night, and moved very minimally during his performance. He was a modest, almost timid performer, and his singing sounded just like that on his records. Echoing the singing styles of Phoebe Bridgers and Elliott Smith, Lee Hutson’s smooth voice resonates so close and intimately to the ear, no matter how far away the source of the sound is. While he might have been two hundred feet away from me, at times it sounded like it was just me and him in the room, and he was serenading right next to me on the wooden bench. 

Christian Lee Hutson performing at the Ryman Auditorium, photo by Alyssa Bersamin

One of the best aspects of his performance was his whimsical monologues before each song. Before performing “Age Difference,” he tells the story of being a little too high at a museum in North Carolina and wandering off into the forest and eventually the highway, yet appreciating every moment of his derailed journey as a piece of art and social commentary. So at least if he weren’t such a talented songwriter, he certainly would have made it as a comedian. 

Sometimes, it really feels like Lee Hutson’s music is incongruous to his lyrics. In “Strawberry Lemonade,” his warm guitar harmonies hide the fact that he’s literally singing about how tiring life can be. But the contrast is exactly what accurately describes his attitude toward life. It feels like whatever ridiculous thing life throws at him, he’ll just accept it because what else can you do? 

With his mild disillusionment with life and awkward personality that makes every thing he say somehow hilarious, Christian Lee Hutson is such a lovable character and truly has so much to add to the world of music. As he was promoting Quitters, he joked about how it was going to be his last album since he was quitting. I realized that one of the reasons we all found that so funny was because we know that Christian Lee Hutson isn’t not going anywhere any time soon — he has so much more to offer us.

Christian Lee Hutson and his band performing at the Ryman Auditorium, photo by Alyssa Bersamin

However, Bright Eyes brought to us a markedly different stage presence. The first song on the set, “Dance and Sing,” gave us a perfect taste of what we were in for. It featured a live string and horn section, as well as a satisfactory attempt at dancing from Oberst, who was most likely at least a little intoxicated. With a setlist that spanned from songs in their most recent LP, all the way to a song Oberst wrote when he was 15, Oberst sang everything from love pleas to love slander to depressive states to traveling dreams to helping friends. Even as the band played their classic hits, they kept us on our toes with many fresh musical ideas. In “First Day of My Life,” for example, the band incorporated a beautiful flute component to the song that shone a fresh new light on a fan favorite.

Bright Eyes’s big tour band, photo by Alyssa Bersamin

Unlike Christian Lee Hutson, Bright Eyes was unabashedly loud and riotous. Oberst admittedly is not the greatest dancer, yet he still eagerly stumbled his way through awkward positions and movements, running into band members and instruments along the way. Oberst is also quite famous for having an unconventional voice, regardless of if you judge him by emo or folk or rock standards. His voice trembles like the red Solo cup in his hand, and the louder he gets, the more he shakes. And while listening to him sing is always slightly to moderately distressing, he lets his voice shine through in his performance even more than he does on the records. It was the prevailing sound of the night, and though you could hardly call the sound itself beautiful, there is beauty and meaning there in so many other aspects. It reflects Oberst’s troubled past, the theme of uncertainty in so many of his songs, and emphasizes that music should be allowed to challenge you and doesn’t always need to sound pretty. Amidst a harmonious sea of futuristic synths and strings, Oberst’s dependably uneasy voice rising above it all gives us a somber depiction of his perspective on the world— longing and hopeful for so much more, but trapped into living a painful life.

Oberst front and center at the Ryman, photo by Alyssa Bersamin

Conor Oberst’s rebellious rockstar personality is quite a singularity in the relatively chill indie folk-rock scene that Bright Eyes is often associated with. He threw mic stands onto the floor, spat on the stage, punk rock screamed, and repeatedly bit Mike Mogis’s neck during the performance (at least that’s what it looked like). Throughout the set, he somehow managed to insult racists, the city of Nashville, the entirety of the Catholic Church, country music, the entire American south, the Ryman Auditorium itself, and French people.

“Everyone knows fondue is stupid it’s just nacho cheese”

Oberst at the Ryman, 2022

Oberst and Mogis performing at the Ryman, photo by Alyssa Bersamin

While Oberst admitted that he was indeed “an a**hole,” he also displayed his huge heart as he expressed relentless gratitude for as many things as he has hatred for. He wished a warm happy birthday to one of his tour members on at least five separate occasions, made a huge effort trying to introduce every single person in his tour band, musicians and technicians included, and let every single one of his band members have a turn at the mic to talk to the audience (though only Mogis and Walcott spoke; no one else seemed to want to). Oberst might not be stable, but still we love him, because he truly does have a fiery compassion for humanity and will never fail to make us laugh.

“Don’t worry about my ex-wife. We’re still friends and hang out sometimes. She’s had a boyfriend for about four years and he’s super great. She’s way happier with him than she was with me, so I’m very happy for her… Maybe worry about me …a little bit because I miss her sometimes…no actually don’t worry about me because I have a reallllllly nice girlfriend to look forward to.”

Oberst at the Ryman, 2022

Oberst being appreciative to band member Lynn Ligammari on her birthday, photo by Alyssa Bersamin

On the surface, Christian Lee Hutson and Bright Eyes could not seem like a more mismatched pair. Bright Eyes’s grandiose sound in combination with Oberst’s raucous persona is very unlike Lee Hutson’s warm, timid vocals and his charmingly awkward character. But from another perspective, they were connected in a crucial way: they both sang and joked about the futility of finding joy in a life filled with so much suffering and nonsense. In some weird, perverted way, they actually managed to bring the audience joy through their commentaries on stories of sorrow and grief and lovesickness and lost youth. Sure, the stories and songs themselves are sad, but it’s the way you look at and make sense of them that really affects how you feel. In this case, Lee Hutson and Oberst chose… humor. It’s fascinating how we are equipped with the ability to both tell jokes about how absurd life is and the mechanism to laugh at those same jokes. At the very least, when everything is falling apart, humor can still keep us powering through the dark and into the light, wherever that may be — I mean, it’s certainly working for Christian Lee Hutson and Bright Eyes.

Listen to “Quitters” and “Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was” below: