Bright Eyes, Scala, London
Thursday 17 February 2011
The high-pitched screams that greet the dimming of the house lights suggest that, unlike the general run of singer-songwriters, habitual toilers in a mine of masculine angst, Conor Oberst's audience has an unusually substantial female component.
It's an impression confirmed by the string of ladies braving the stage-front crush at a packed Scala, all of them singing along with every word of every song – no mean feat at all, given the extent of Oberst's back catalogue, and the sheer number of words crammed into each song. One example of tonight's sprawling set is called "Nothing Gets Crossed Out", and that's a fairly apposite description of his lyric style, which leaves no stone unturned, no impulse unexamined, no action unconsidered. His appeal shouldn't be too much of a surprise, I suppose: as well as being cute as a button, Oberst seems to open his heart completely every time he opens his mouth, which – forgive the generalisation – sometimes appears to be all that a woman ever really wants from a man.
Tonight's show starts with the same mystical voiceover that opens the new Bright Eyes album, The People's Key, cosmic mumbo-jumbo about reptilian spirits from the fourth dimension mating with humans and producing Hitler, which silences everyone long enough for Oberst to quietly slip into "Firewall", an epic screed of visionary country-rock involving an epiphanic moment when he "burst through the firewall into hell". A fusillade of machine-gun guitars and drums then heralds "Jejune Stars", in which he proposes another weird dimensional shift, this one involving a porthole in the passage of time through which we can look at ourselves. If it weren't so darned catchy, it would be ludicrous.
From there, the set ranges back and forth across Bright Eyes's extensive catalogue, from old favourites like the ebullient "Four Winds" and "Old Soul Song" to new numbers like "Haile Selassie" and the insidiously infectious "Shell Games" – for which the enormous acclaim suggests that, with the right nurturing, Bright Eyes may finally have found the hit that could help them "do an Arcade Fire", make that vault from cult status into the mainstream. Though nominally a trio, the touring band certainly have an equivalent depth of sound, with two drummers, two guitars and two keyboards, the instrumental detail including pedal steel guitar, National steel guitar, trumpet, synthesiser and myriad percussive elements.
The set draws to a close with the Beethoven-inspired "Road to Joy", right after Mike Mogis leads the audience in a round of "Happy Birthday" to Conor. Then, as they return for encores, armfuls of Valentine roses are dispensed, Solomon Burke style, among the ladies who've spent two hours crushed against the stage front. They are not ungratefully received.
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