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Succeeding a triumphant Shepherd’s Bush Empire show by breaking your new band in to less than a tenth of the crowd at a moment’s notice isn’t exactly standard rock star behaviour. But then there was always an air of uniqueness about Conor Oberst.
It’s bizarre how surroundings can conjure up massive juxtapositions and oxymorons. Tonight, Oberst looks on one hand every inch the quivering, ranting, sensitive, (yes...) emo icon he’s revered as. Simultaneously, if you didn’t know better he could be just another lost soul singing the blues in vain hope of stardom – midweek in a half-full Barfly – like so many others those outside Camden will never hear. The short-notice nature of this gig, booked barely 24 hours previously, has served to make it a touch too secret. A surprisingly pretty in the flesh Kelly Osbourne was obviously swinging from the grapevine at the right time, mind, upping the already surreal stakes.
With a tendency to be more enigmatic than charismatic on a larger stage, it takes this almost once in a lifetime intimacy to illustrate why Bright Eyes are held in messiah-like esteem in some quarters. A stunning, imposing harp shares centre stage with Oberst, and added brass backing lends a timeless quality to songs once comparative bare skeletons of raw passion.
Nowadays, Oberst sings with the desperate breathless vocal urgency largely removed – it should strip the emotion, but in reality there’s a feeling he’s merely grown up. And given the ire his adolescent outpourings have been known to inspire, diverting attention away from the boy’s indisputable talent, that can only be a positive thing.
The obscenely-titled likes of ‘You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will’ and ‘Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh’ are as far removed from the suggested pretension as possible, mature outreachings to assembled ranks glancing around in bemused wonderment – surely they’re imagining an occasion so special, populated by so few?
And while Bright Eyes will definitely play more accomplished, important future shows to infinitely swelled crowds – Glastonbury for one – Oberst will have his work cut out to top something this personal with a band whose triumphs thrive on that very delivery. Magnificent.
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