18 July, 2014
A still restless Conor Oberst delivers a full-on London show, backed by Dawes, provoking tears and joy.
London gigs? They’ve been some of the best and some of the worst. I’m a northerner with a well defined comfort zone and my musical forays into the capital have ranged from a delirious Flaming Lips at the Royal Albert Hall to the Spear of Destiny in a subterranean club at which I was fearful of seeing the daylight ever again.
Earlier that day we’d passed a building that read ’35deg’ so dressed as sparingly as possible in anticipation of the sweatiest gig of the decade we were nicely surprised to be greeted by the Koko’s efficient air conditioning.
I was VERY keen to see Conor Oberst. An admirer since his earliest scratchy recordings as a teenager in the mid 90s I’d watched his development as a lyricist and his increasing ability to defy expectations. I’d always seen a bit of the Neil Young in him – a confidence to do exactly what he wanted but with the sense of fragility that walking a high wire brings, not always getting it right but always seeking to re-invent. The sophistication of his songwriting, its complexity and studiedeness always seemed to belie his youthfulness; how could such a young man write so coherently about such weighty matters? Through the Bright Eyes albums, solo projects, Monsters Of Folk, The Mystic Valley Band and touring now with the band Dawes, his live shows have always been unpredictable affairs, and all the better for it.
So we arrive just as Dawes are winding down their very early support set. That Oberst has persuaded Dawes to act as his backing band for a few months is a sign of the respect with which he is held. Three albums in, they are a terrific live outfit, part of the Laurel Canyon revival that has gathered pace around the production skills of Jonathan Wilson. They are unashamedly retro – vintage analogue amps, Hammond organ and lived-in guitars, country folk-rock with the Goldsmith brothers’ harmonies on the careworn lyrics the signature point. I was saying two years ago they were going to be huge but they’re not…yet.
I’d been reading earlier in the day about the legal case that Oberst had recently settled with a mad fan and was wondering if that might affect the atmosphere. Well, it didn’t. Now, I’m old but this was a VERY young crowd with a high female quotient and as he walks on stage it’s the nearest I’ve been (recently) to hysteria.
From the off it’s evident that this show is not about Oberst re-discovering his lo-fi roots, but a full on rock/pop performance with a ramped up Dawes providing elephantine heft. Fortunately, the sound is impeccable and Oberst’s vocals are way up front, enabling his clipped and precise delivery to be heard over the electrical storm beneath. So his obsessional themes – fate, personal discovery, spaceships, the spiritual journey (yes God) – are far from lost in the squall.
He ranges through his catalogue, the highlights being a rollicking We Are Nowhere And It’s Now, a spectral Lua and a piano-based If The Brakeman Turns My Way, which turns a young man next to me into a mass of melting tears. He clearly connects with people on a range of levels, and it seems everyone apart from ourselves know EVERY word to EVERY song.
Oberst is now 34, and whether he moves into the realms of Neil Young’s longevity remains to be seen. He is clearly restless, even if his last two albums have been relatively safe affairs. This gig is up there with the very best London shows this northerner has seen and I’m guessing the next time will be just him and an acoustic guitar. Either way, whatever the incarnation, it’ll be worth another trip to the capital.
Links for Conor Oberst…
Links for Dawes…