Bright Eyes recently returned with their first album in nine years, Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was, and followed it, days later, with a new cover of Thin Lizzy's "Running Back," a continuation of the Bright Eyes tradition of covering legendary musicians, many of whom were an influence on Conor Oberst and the band.
Had this year gone according to plan, they'd have wrapped up the first leg of their reunion tour last month, where that Thin Lizzy cover may have appeared on setlists. We were also looking forward to the possibility that openers Lucy Dacus and Japanese Breakfast might join Bright Eyes on stage for a cover or two, or vice versa (another tradition).
We recently compiled a list of 10 Great Bright Eyes covers by other artists; today we present a list of 15 done by Bright Eyes:
"Running Back" (Thin Lizzy cover)
Soon after Thin Lizzy's new career-spanning box set (and a Phil Lynott documentary) were announced, Bright Eyes -- possibly coincidentally -- covered the Dublin rockers for a SiriusXM session they played in support of the new Bright Eyes album. It's a faithful take on "Running Back," which Lynott said was "very much influenced by Van Morrison," and which was almost the first single off 1976's Jailbreak instead of "The Boys Are Back in Town."
"Mushaboom" (Feist cover)
This twangy, country-fried take on popular Feist Let It Die single "Mushaboom" was performed on Bright Eyes' 2005 tour supporting I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and released as part of their live album documenting that tour, Motion Sickness: Live Recordings. Feist also played at least some of the dates on that tour, and Conor and her also performed it live together, as you can watch in the second video -- from a show in Philadelphia -- below:
"The Biggest Lie" (Elliott Smith cover)
"Sometimes when you're not feeling good, you have to listen to really sad music like Elliott Smith," Conor told NPR in 2005. From that same 2005 tour and live album that led to the Feist cover, comes this acoustic, minimal cover of "The Biggest Lie," from Elliott Smith's 1995 self-titled sophomore album. Whether you interpret it as a song about a break-up, addiction, or suicide, the desparate melancholy of the lyrics and delivery might make a Bright Eyes fan unfamiliar with the original think they were hearing a Letting Off the Happiness b-side.
"Crazy as a Loon," “Pretty Good” & "Wedding Day in Funeralville" (John Prine covers)
John Prine’s enormous influence on country folk has become clearer than ever in recent times -- in part sadly due to his recent passing at the hands of Coronavirus -- and that has brought with it countless new covers of Prine songs by many of our favorite indie artists, but Conor Oberst has been covering his hero (who he opened two shows for in 2018) since at least 2007. Bright Eyes covered "Crazy as a Loon" from John Prine's 2005 album Fair & Square multiple times live, but this rendition is from an AOL session in March of 2007. In 2014 (shortly after opening for Prine in LA), Conor and band covered 1971’s “Pretty Good” on KCRW who released this pro-shot video. Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band contributed this version of 1975’s "Wedding Day in Funeralville" to 2010 Prine tribute album Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine.
"Wrecking Ball" (Gillian Welch cover)
No, Conor has not covered Miley Cyrus as far as we know, but Bright Eyes is known to cover Gillian Welch's 2003 song of the same name. He regularly brought out Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds to join them on the cover during the 2011 Bright Eyes tour in support of The People's Key; he also covered it with Jenny and Johnny, aka Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice, and has played it with Gillian herself. It's a song that resonates with Bright Eyes' backstory as it narrates Gillian's own, with its Dylan-imitating structure, a play on "Like a Rolling Stone," and sound that departs from her more stripped down previous work. Bright Eyes, as they gradually brought more rootsy Americana sounds into their work through the years, could definitely relate.
Meanwhile, Gillian appeared, along with her musical partner David Rawlings, on 2007's Cassadaga, covered Bright Eyes' "Method Acting together, and Conor and Gillian did "Lua" for the beloved 2009 indie compilation Dark Was The Night.
"Walls (Circus)" (Tom Petty cover)
Tom Petty's 1996 single "Walls (Circus)," from the soundtrack to She's the One, was inspired by Johnny Cash telling Petty, "Some days are diamonds, and some days are rocks." Bright Eyes' cover of the track made a regular appearance on the November 2007 leg of their tour supporting Cassadaga, with the Felice Brothers joining in, too. Conor revived the cover nearly 10 years later for a performance at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in October of 2017, to pay tribute to Petty, who passed away earlier that month
"Burn Rubber" (Simon Joyner cover)
Omaha scene forefather Simon Joyner was a major influence on Conor Oberst, who said, "Pound for pound Simon Joyner is my favorite lyricist of all time. He has shades of all the greats (Van Zandt, Cohen, Dylan) but exists in a space all his own...He truly is an American songwriting treasure. It is my hope that more people will discover his music and share in the unique joy that it brings." Bright Eyes released a cover of his song "Burn Rubber" as the b-side of 2004's Take It Easy (Love Nothing) single. They also covered it live, including a couple of times in 2002, and a 2004 show where Conor and Simon sang it together.
"Joy Division" (Simon Joyner cover)
"He's pretty much the best there is right now, as far as humans," Conor said of Simon Joyner, before covering this song from his 1994 album The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll at a 2001 show in Seattle.
"Metal Firecracker" (Lucinda Williams cover)
Bright Eyes were joined by Azure Ray for this lo-fi cover of a track off long-running Americana icon Lucinda Williams' celebrated 1998 classic, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. "Metal Firecracker," a break-up track with dreamy harmonies on the chorus and just a little twang, seems a particularly apt choice for Conor to cover with one half of Azure Ray, Maria Taylor; they previously dated. The cover came out on a 2002 compilation, As Yet No Title - Skewed Songwriter, from Unread Records & Tapes.
"Devil Town" (Daniel Johnston cover)
Cult, outsider singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston (Rest in Peace) -- who is known as much for his crippling mental illness (as documented in wonderful movie The Devil and Daniel Johnston) as he is for his awe inspiring artwork and songs -- is an indie rock legend and has inspired so many cover versions and tribute albums through the years. Bright Eyes' version of the especially moving "Devil Town" -- with help from Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner on guitar -- came out in 2004 on the Mark Linkous-curated The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, and later appeared on Bright Eyes’ Noise Floor rarities collection.
"Out On The Weekend" (Neil Young cover)
Bright Eyes covered Neil Young's Harvest-opening song "Out On The Weekend," at a 2001 South Dakota show at The Imperial Inn. The original is a wistful country ballad full of images of loneliness and alienation, themes that were particularly resonant in that era of Bright Eyes, in the year between the releases of Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted. Conor gives the vocals a rough, snarling edge, and the cover feels closer to a punk song than its roots.
"Helpless" (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cover)
Bright Eyes' 2007 residency at Town Hall in NYC featured lots of covers and special guests, and they took this opportunity to once again cover Neil Young. This time they did "Helpless," the classic that Neil contributed to CNSY's Déjà Vu, and they had help from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (who opened the shows), and Norah Jones.
"I'm Waiting For the Man" (The Velvet Underground cover)
On the first night of the same residency at Town Hall, Lou Reed came out to join Bright Eyes for a couple of songs. The guest appearance was "the most New York thing we could think of to do," Conor said, introducing Lou, before they launched renditions of "I'm Waiting For the Man" and "Dirty Blvd." We couldn't find footage of "Dirty Blvd," but here's the Velvet Underground classic, with Conor and Lou trading vocals.
"Rex's Blues" (Townes Van Zandt cover)
Later in the Town Hall residency, Conor joined the evening's special guest, Steve Earle, to trade off vocals on this classic by Townes Van Zandt (who Steve named his son Justin Townes Earle after... RIP Justin).
"We're Going to Be Friends" (The White Stripes cover)
In 2011, Bright Eyes and Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit delivered a synthy, whimsical take on the already-pretty-whimsical "We're Going To Be Friends" by The White Stripes -- who formed two years after Bright Eyes -- for a school-themed compilation benefiting children's charity The Lunchbox Fund.