That Time I Opened for Bright Eyes

How one show helped bring John Strohm (Blake Babies, the Lemonheads) back to music.

In the fall of 2003, I’d pretty much given up playing music. I played music full time (in terms of time commitment — not necessarily for my livelihood) for more than a decade, beginning in the mid-’80s and ending sometime around the turn of the Millennium when I decided to finish college and try law school. By the time I started law school in my wife Heather’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, in 2001, I barely had time to take a guitar out of a case. When our daughter Anna was born in 2002, the jig was up. Not only did I stop playing; I stopped listening or paying attention to music.

That fall of ’03, Heather’s friend Maria Taylor called me up. Maria is a couple of years younger than Heather and therefore nearly ten years younger than me. I’d followed her blossoming music career for a few years in the mid ’90s when I first moved to Birmingham; she co-fronted a great Birmingham-based rock band called Little Red Rocket around the time that I moved to town. They’d taken their shot on a major label without much payoff, and then Maria and her musical partner Orenda took a folkier turn with their next project, Azure Ray, by then based in Athens, Georgia. I’d stopped paying much attention by the time the band relocated to Nebraska around 2000.

The purpose of the call was that Maria and her boyfriend were coming home for Thanksgiving and they planned to put on a local show by the boyfriend’s band, Bright Eyes. I’d heard of Bright Eyes, but I didn’t know much about them. I’d briefly worked in a record store before I started law school, and I recalled selling Bright Eyes CDs to a number of sullen indie kids around Maria’s age. Bright Eyes planned to play a show after Thanksgiving at a local club, but not to fly out the usual lineup. Rather, Maria’s very musical family would accompany Conor Oberst, the boyfriend/singer. Maria’s father, Casey Sr., is a legendary local musician best known for writing a ubiquitous jingle for a regional fast food restaurant (“Everybody goes to Milo’s” — if you’ve heard it, it’ll be in your head for the next two hours). Maria would drum, Macey Sr. would play keyboards, brother Macey Jr. would play bass (he now plays in Jenny Lewis’ band), and I think Maria’s high school-age sister even played something. Maria generously offered to have me to open the show. I told her I was a little out of practice, but it sounded like a blast. She could count on me.

Maria paused and then informed me that the show had sold out almost instantly.

The night before the show (it must have been Friday after Thanksgiving with Saturday as show day), Heather and I got together with Conor and Maria for dinner at a local Lebanese restaurant. We had our one-year-old daughter Anna with us, new to walking and primed to explore the sprawling restaurant and neighboring store. We made distracted conversation and I remember asking if they expected a good-sized crowd at Zydeco, the six-hundred-capacity club. Maria paused and then informed me that the show had sold out almost instantly. I guess I’d imagined Bright Eyes being sort of “indie popular,” meaning in my mind there might be a couple of hundred folks there — aside from the scenesters who appeared as fixtures at every local indie show, lined up in front of the stage, bobbing their heads with arms folded against their chests. Suddenly I felt like I was in over my head.

When I arrived for sound check, a line of ticket-holders stretched around the block. A full hour before my set time, they pushed up against the stage, obviously waiting with bated breath. They were so young — average age maybe sixteen, more girls than boys by probably two to one. It looked like a somewhat more serious and darker-clad version of a mid-’90s Lemonheads crowd. They were not there to hear me.

Conor came out to rapturous cheers and gave me an overly generous introduction, guaranteeing me at least polite applause, which is what they gave. I made a few nervous jokes about the youth of the crowd, which fell flat. I offended some people when I made a wisecrack about the band Thursday (a band I knew and still know nothing about — but there were more than a few T-shirts in the front). I got through a half-hour set, but I felt as out of touch with underground culture as I’ve ever felt in my life. I was thirty-five…but I might as well have been sixty. I’ve never heard such a quick end to a round of applause after a set I’ve played. Two seconds and…dead silence.

Conor played some solo tunes and I understood why his audience connected so viscerally with his music.

Bright Eyes’/Taylor family band’s set was remarkable. They all played together beautifully and instinctively; you could tell they were flying by the seat of their pants at times, but doing so professionally. The Taylor family members all beamed and projected warmth and demonstrated an authentic shared musical language unique to kids who grow up playing together. Conor played some solo tunes and I understood why his audience connected so viscerally with his music. While certain influences came through, his writing and singing voice were uniquely his own, and you could see in these kids’ faces that he was telling their stories back to them. I recognized in him a true talent in his element, enjoying his first real moment of connection with a mass audience, which is always an exciting thing to witness.

Later in the evening, at a party at Maria’s parent’s house, a tipsy Conor sloppily kissed me on the neck as he thanked me for a great set and stuffed a wad of cash in my hand. I didn’t count the money; but when I fished the wad of cash out of my jeans later that night, it turned out to be a ridiculously large sum — especially considering I only drew my guest list. As an odd footnote, Damian Rice attended the after-party, and of course I had no idea who he was. One of those surreal nights from start to finish.

It disturbed me that I’d so quickly fallen out of the music scene that I had no idea which bands were breaking into the mainstream.

A year or so later, when I began practicing law and aspired to find my way back to the music business, I thought about that night a great deal. It disturbed me that I’d so quickly fallen out of the music scene that I had no idea which bands were breaking into the mainstream. I’d checked out during a truly pivotal moment in the musical underground. It motivated me to read, listen and study so that I could have up-to-date conversations with artists and industry people. I carved out time to study every day; I knew the rising acts, the important labels, and the trends of the underground to the point where I’d know how to recognize a rising talent and I wouldn’t miss opportunities as they came my way.

I’m grateful to Maria and Conor for opening my eyes and ears. If things had gone differently, I might never have found my way back to music. Instead, I became motivated to dig in and actively pursue my passion in music, which has led to the career I have today as an artists’ advocate. I can’t say this one event on its own opened up a world for me, but it absolutely demonstrated to me how quickly I could lose touch with the ever-changing current of underground music.

John P. Strohm is an entertainment lawyer and former professional musician based in Nashville, Tennessee. During his musician years he played guitar and wrote songs for Blake Babies and played various instruments in the Lemonheads, while he dabbled in various aspects of the music business. These days he has a much better understanding of the music business, although he still occasionally dabbles in music.