Waiting at the station to board the tube on the way to see Bright Eyes, I eavesdropped on a pair of late-teens standing near me. They didnt have tickets and were hoping to score some from a tout.
“Looks like we’re going to get there at exactly 9pm. That’s gonna be too late” said one.
“Maybe he’ll be on late, you know how much of a nutter he is” said the other.
“Yes! He’s a massive druggy!”
“He’s not a druggy…” scoffed the first.
“He’s such a massive druggy!”
I left them to it as I got on the train. But I hoped they made it in to Shepherd’s Bush Empire. These guys had touched on one of the elements that make Conor Oberst the cult figure he is: his myth. The truth is, he’s not very much of a druggy at all at least not these days but it’s stories like this that contributed to selling out the Empire two nights running. The other element is the music, which has become an essential soundtrack to the universal disaffection that is the post 9/11 landscape.
When he last played the UK, in February, he was accompanied by four other musicians only, showcasing material from Cassadaga that the band hadn’t quite grown into. Tonight saw the band perform songs from that penetrating record with a conviction that was missing then, to an audience that now has those weighty epistles etched across its collective brow. In addition, we had strings, woodwind, synths and matching white outfits. “It’s like watching angels play” said my plus one.
Four Winds, Oberst’s apocalyptic hoe-down, is fast becoming a Bright Eyes classic, as is new single When The Brakeman Turns My Way. Oberst’s voice remained tremulous throughout, reaching apoplectic levels of impassioned rage as he spat out Middleman: “The dead can hide beneath the ground and the birds can always fly/But the rest of us to what we must, in constant compromise”.
The gorgeous Lime Tree made the Empire hold its breath, and indeed this gig if nothing else proved that Cassadaga is a watershed release both in Oberst’s career and the lives of the young fans who actually understand what he is saying, rather than see him as an unpredictable ‘druggy’.
That said, the best moments came from earlier albums. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning was represented by At The Bottom Of Everything, a rocky, up-tempo version of Lua, but sadly no Road To Joy. In its place as Oberst’s ‘I’m gonna break stuff’ track was Digital Ash In A Digital Urn’s I Believe In Symmetry, thus far Oberst’s greatest song, thanks to its soaring refrain: “The instinct of the blind insect/Who never thinks not to accept its fate/That’s faith, there’s happiness in death.” He knocked over an amp at the end of the song and trudged off stage, having made his point.