Feb 3, 2017

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Live Review: Conor Oberst – The Albert Hall, Manchester

This gig, billed as an intimate audience with Conor Oberst, felt like it could have gone one of two ways. The first, a gripping and intense demonstration of this virtuoso’s justifiably lauded songwriting prowess, the second, an arrogant and pretentious self-aggrandising show-off. Disappointingly, the end result was neither one nor the other.

After excellent support from Miwi La Lupa (who joined Oberst on guitar for the main set) and Phoebe Bridges, Oberst arrived on stage almost 15 minutes late and ploughed straight in to latest album opener Tachycardia which opened the first of two 45 minute sets littered with newer music from last year’s Ruminations (and the upcoming Salutations) and Oberst-fan favourites such as Cape Canaveral.

Strangely, the all-seated layout of the evening failed to create the intimacy promised before the show. That said, barring one amusing lyrical slip which Oberst charmed his way out of, the performance of his songs was spot-on. Engaging and entertaining as he swapped between piano and guitar, the former Bright Eyes singer did exhibit the fruits of his song-writing skills alluded to earlier.

Unfortunately, it was between songs that things got a bit weird. Oberst routinely forgot to collect the next song’s harmonica from his roadie – a man who, sat on stage next to the piano, seemed solely employed to hand out mouth organs and who could possibly have been replaced with, say, a table – and his audience interaction left a little to be desired. For example, towards the end of the first set his latest single A Little Uncanny was preceded by a bizarre apologetic rant about the state of America and President Donald Trump. Though met by occasional woops and cheers from an adoring audience, Oberst’s monologue didn’t actually make a great deal of sense.

The set would have delighted long time Oberst fans and the two Bright Eyes covers; Lua (performed beautifully as a duet with Phoebe Bridges) and the set-ending Bottom Of Everything were comfortably the highlights of the performance, closely followed by the “title track but not really the title track” from the latest album Ruminations; Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch) and two covers performed by all three of the evenings entertainers together, which showed off some impressive vocal talents.

Oberst was at his best when sarcastically urging the audience to create “more goddam online content, you know how I love content” and at his worst spitting on stage and, during the penultimate track, screaming into the microphone and leaning until it collapsed over his monitors. Some might have said the latter example showed Oberst’s passion for his music but, frankly, it was a little annoying.

As mentioned earlier, the seated arrangement of the gig was seemingly intended to increase its “intimate” nature but, in reality, it had the opposite effect as no real atmosphere was created until the final three songs. In fact, the layout only proved efficient in engineering half a standing ovation from a somewhat sycophantic crowd. Whilst Oberst’s song writing and performing abilities were never in doubt, the truth is this show wasn’t his best and it certainly failed to live up to the hype of both a performer of Oberst’s stature and the venue of the Albert Hall (or as Oberst humorously put it “#theGoddamAlbertHallButNotTheRealOneTheOtherOne”).

That said, there aren’t many talents like Oberst around and it had been a while since he played in Manchester, so big fans would have been delighted just to see him in the flesh, playing their favourite songs, which he obligingly delivered and, to be fair, delivered well. It was the stunted monologues and strange behaviour exhibited between songs that gave the evening an uncomfortable feel. In short, this was one for the die-hards.

James Beck