It all sounded a bit cabaret. At a night entitled 'An Evening with Conor Oberst', you are almost expecting an audience made up of an emo-ed up Cilla Black, and Carol Vorderman looking her vampish best. If we're lucky, Freddie Starr may even provide the warm-up. Instead, it was left to me to go cosmetically enhanced to fit in with the rest of the pretty boys that inevitably end up watching everything Saddle Creek.
Saddle Creek have consistently provided us with some of the best releases over recent years. I like to think of them as a post-globalisation label. Their appeal is widespread, almost universal, yet there is something entirely localised in the records' focus. Conor plays the unlikely Godfather, whilst the rest of the Saddle Creek family, sharing each others songs and musicianship. Almost every record from the homegrown bands lionises Nebraska like Woody Allen gratuitously glorifies Manhattan. Omaha has at last truly become somewhere in Middle America.
I attended the University of London with the impression that Conor Oberst was still to win over London. Summer of 2003. Playing with Bright Eyes, his motley bunch of musicians, the 'Sold Out' signs had been up outside Shepherds Bush Empire for months. That early crowd seemed to be populated by those that had turned up just to see who this whippersnapper was that was currently shagging Winona Ryder. The inane chatter from celebrity-whores drowning out a tepid, red wine fuelled performance. Bright Eyes return was somewhat more triumphant and restored the faith in all that hadn't walked out after watching the Modest Mouse support.
Despite the proliferation of cheap beer and many rediscovering the long lost ability to get pissed on a fiver, the audience at ULU were mesmerised and silent. This was music stripped to the bones. A somewhat rock n' roll audience were going to listen to what can easily be described as Dylanesque folk. A dark poetry of protest and love, both lost and found.
Too many singer-songwriters that move their songs away from the sanctuary of a band seem not to make their guitar the star. Conor moved with ease from spitting bile whilst cheese-grating his fingers; to a tenor country voice and intricate strum. Poignancy was neither added or taken away by the one man and guitar setup. My heart did feel as though it was going to jump out of my body however, every beat felt and heard in the otherwise silence of the room. It provides a real anatomy lesson on the effects of music, when you are able to just stand there and immerse yourself in nothing else.
Breezing through many of the more playable tracks off Lifted…and unsurprising new single "Lua", new material was premiered which suggested a continuation of form. How it will work on two separate releases on the same day and what it will be joined by, makes me wish away my Christmas. Conor even went to the lengths of previewing a song he had written that day. 'When the President Talks to God' (my title) a hateful rant against the loose morals of the Chief Commander and indirectly, the sadly proven majority that share Bush's outlook. Such songs were beautifully tempered by those such as Blue, a weepy equivalent of Three is a Magic Number. So I was left thinking that anyone at the gig could'nt fail to be moved. He can play like this every time I see him if he likes, though there will be no calls of “Judas” should he decide to pick up an electric guitar again. This was cabaret for the kids, both affected and disaffected. On this performance, I wouldn't be surprised if he takes over our ITV screens for a “star-studded” one off special…in 20 years time.