Conor Oberst, Big Thief: O2 Academy, Liverpool

Conor Oberst

Conor Oberst

The former Bright Eyes frontman took to a Liverpool stage after a seven year hiatus, with GetintothisDavid Hall watching on.

Conor Oberst is nothing if not a musical chameleon. The last time he was in Liverpool, he was promoting the career-high double-header of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn with his most widely-acclaimed project Bright Eyes.

Since then he’s gone on to solo albums, the supergroup Monsters of Folk and repeated returns to the furious punk of Desaparecidos, culminating in the past two years’ activity. Following last year’s sparse, bare Ruminations album, a full band re-tooling Salutations has just been released. It’s that mode in which Liverpool found Conor Oberst.

Meanwhile, it was a case of the barer the better for support act Big Thief. Although their quiet sections were characterful, the noisy full band passages ended up as more generic sounding. But while just Adrianne Lenker‘s quirky voice – like a pitched up Kristen Hersh clashing with Joanna Newsom‘s mad mannerisms, since you asked – paired with her canny lyrics and guitar chords, her band shone.

Certainly they’re not the most technically proficient act you’ll ever see in the flesh, Big Thief return to the UK for their own headline shows in November, for more of their ragged indie rock.

Shortly later, Conor Oberst and his band made up of Felice Brothers members assembled on stage, and laid into a set in which his voice sounded pleasingly identical to his studio work throughout.

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It was a strong outset too, with Barbary Coast (Later) kicking off proceedings, followed by an incendiary take on Bright Eyes classic Four Winds. From there, the set never quite felt like it lived up to those standards consistently, with several notable exceptions.

Oberst has always been at his best when messing with form, and playing around with genre. When he’s dipping his toes into ideas to see ripples form and observe their effects, leaving before they have even dissipated, that’s where his strength best lies. Compare I’m Wide Awake‘s alt country to Lifted‘s raucous pomp, or Digital Ash‘s underrated genre filip to his often more straightforward solo work. There was little of that stylistic hopping on show in Liverpool.

When that was on display, the night really took off. Spare new track No One Is Going To Change was a return to the unbearably close-to-the-bone atmosphere of Ruminations, just Oberst‘s raging voice and rudimentary piano hushing the room.

The torch song of Eagle On A Pole and the neatly dovetailing rhymes of Cape Canaveral, both from Oberst‘s self-titled solo album, also felt like effortless, scorching highlights. But the crowd really responded to their favourite Bright Eyes material, doled out sparingly across the evening.

Something Vague briefly arrested a mid-set dip, standing out where other songs seemed to meld and standing the hairs up on the arms of the crowd even in the sweltering O2 Academy heat.

Highlight of the evening was undoubtedly a faithful version of First Day Of My Life; admirably, Oberst knew not to mess with the classics, and his performance of the track on Merseyside was near faultless. It would be a stretch to describe the whole night as such, but it was a strong showing from a songwriter who is amongst his generation’s finest.

Photos by Getintothis’ Martin Waters: