Tonight’s gig at the beautiful and surprisingly intimate surroundings of Somerset House was all about rebuilding broken bridges. At his recent Glastonbury performance, Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, was under the influence – so much so, in fact, he made a series of inflammatory remarks about the Make Poverty History campaign and the late John Peel. People flooded out of the tent where he was headlining in disgust, and his reputation was left in tatters.
So it was no surprise that the crowd interaction this evening was kept to a bare minimum. All we got from him were occasional thank yous and comments about how beautiful the venue was. He let the music do the majority of the talking, which thankfully equates to Oberst at his best – his talents as a singer songwriter have never been questioned, only his levels of commitment and enthusiasm.
Back in January, Bright Eyes released two albums on the same day – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning saw Oberst in his familiar acoustic territory, whilst Digital Ash In A Digital Urn flirted with a more experimental electronic side. With the acoustic numbers having been toured earlier this year, this summer’s outings were all about promoting the latter record.
And to do so, Oberst brought an orchestra with him. The stage was filled with a vast array of musicians, comprising of members of The Faint and Now It’s Overhead, (Who both belong to Oberst’s Saddle Creek Records family) and also instruments, including not one but two drumkits, a violin, a cello, keyboards and several guitars – and of course Oberst himself, who after strolling quietly and tentatively on to stage, delivered a stunning one and a half hour set which should stick in the memory of all who attended for some time to come.
The sound that resonated within the courtyard’s walls was incredibly lush, and Oberst’s fragile, bittersweet vocals were crystal clear. The songs that were aired were understandably lifted from Digital Ash in the main, and these all sounded as great in the live arena as they do on record – Gold Mine Gutted, Arc Of Time and Take It Easy were standout moments, and all benefited hugely from the vast expanse of sound that was being created behind Oberst.
When he chose to venture away from the electronic based opuses of Digital Ash, the results were equally momentous. The final song before the encore saw just Oberst on stage in the spotlight, who with his electric guitar, guided us through a spine tingling rendition of First Day Of My Life, a single from I’m Wide Awake. Not a murmur was heard in the audience as he commanded the venue’s attention for the song’s duration. The band then returned for Lover I Don’t Have To Love, the highlight of his breakthrough album Lifted, with Oberst’s vocals sounding particularly cutting and vitriolic on the chorus.
The thing is, tonight, he meant it. There was an intensity in his eyes when he was singing that wasn’t there at Glastonbury, so much so that he brought himself to be physically sick on stage by the end of the closing number, Easy/Lucky/Free, almost as if to prove beyond doubt that his heart was truly in it. This was a remarkable triumph over adversity, one that went a long way to restoring his tarnished image. With this sort of performance, no one on earth is able to touch him. Let’s hope he realises this.