Bright Eyes, Scala, London
The Go! Team, Concorde 2, Brighton
Conor Oberst's poetry never fails to move. Thank God, then, for the happy-making Go! Team
Sunday 20 February 2011
St Valentine's Day, and someone in the Scala crowd wishes Conor Oberst a happy one. Clearly, they've never met him before.
"It's really nice of you to join us," says the tremulous anti-romantic. "You really should be having an awkward dinner with your significant other ...." Quick as a shot, another heckler replies, "We're all single!"
If you want to pull a lonely indie boy with facial hair, then a Bright Eyes gig on 14 February is one big supermarket and everything's reduced to clear. There's no denying that Oberst and his band have always spoken eloquently to sensitive young men with vulnerable hearts.
When Oberst first arrived on the scene in the late Nineties – a socialist, atheist, precociously perceptive poet of heartbreak in the tradition of Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame – he was a beautiful boy from Nebraska who sang with a quivering intensity which gave the impression that, if he didn't become a folk singer, he would surely die.
What happens when beautiful young boys pass the age of 30? Are they meant to snap out of it, quit singing in that sob-choked voice and man up? Is there a Logan's Run-style retirement age for showing your feelings? No, a thousand times no. By carrying on wearing his fragile soul like an open wound, Oberst is effectively saying: "You know all those things I used to say and believe? It wasn't just teenage angst. I actually meant them. That's how life really feels."
His world view is remorselessly bleak. "Four Winds" imagines "bodies decomposing in containers tonight" (a possible reference to Series 2 of The Wire). But even the name Bright Eyes is enough to set the bottom lip a-tremble, if you're of a delicate disposition, redolent as it is of Art Garfunkel's "following the river of death downstream". You're already softened up, tear ducts moistening, ready for the kill. When Oberst actually starts singing, all bets are off.
New album The People's Key flirts with electronica, a constant sub-thread in the career of a man generally viewed as a traditional troubadour. Tonight's epic 23-song set finds room for both styles, meaning that the post-Portishead downtempo drum machines of new track "Approximate Sunlight" can be followed by the rolling acoustic waltz "We Are Nowhere and It's Now".
The beardy boys lap it up with adoring devotion. Everyone knows the words to new single "Shell Games", even though the parent album didn't come out until the next day on Oberst's 31st birthday.
The Go! Team make my face hurt. If there's a more happy-making band on earth, I've yet to hear them, and by the end of their hometown show, my cheek muscles are killing me from smiling so much.
Three Brighton boys with mutton chops and Robin Friday hair, two Japanese girls and one London black girl – their music is as gloriously eclectic as their personnel: a super-feelgood mash-up of northern soul, female hip-hop, retro girl-pop and skipping rope chants which invariably makes the Banana Splits theme sound like Joy Division.
They start with a triple salvo from albums three, two and one – "T.O.R.N.A.D.O." (the brand new Rolling Blackouts), "Grip Like a Vice" (2007's Proof of Youth) and "Huddle Formation" (2004's classic debut Thunder, Lightning, Strike). The momentum barely lets up, with just a couple of mellow-yellow interludes, heavily featuring the melodica and therefore exuding the hauntological mood of music from 1970s schools programmes – thrown in to allow you to catch your breath before you're back into the entrancing "Ladyflash" or the utterly vibrant "Bottle Rocket".
The Go! Team's inspired collision of vintage styles is built on the kind of perfectly selected horn section and girl-group samples that have taken main man Ian Parton a lifetime of record-collecting to assemble, and the end result sounds like Salt-N-Pepa crossed with Saint Etienne and the Avalanches with a dash of early Dexys (pretty much the recipe for my ideal band).
In the flesh, though, it's singer-rapper Ninja who dominates. She's an absolute star, throwing every part of her body into every syllable and every beat, and she's the reason why The Go! Team will be an unmissable act in the sunshine of the summer festivals.
The pure pop dream, betrayed by Cowell and his evil cohorts, still burns bright in the hearts of The Go! Team. For that, they're as vital as they've ever been.
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