I’ve been at least a little bit into Conor Oberst for more than a decade, picking up I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning in January 2005 on the day after it was released, and steadily accumulating some of his many records over the years. My total now stands at five Bright Eyes records and two of his solo releases, although at least twenty have come out since his first album all the way back in 1993.
I didn’t know much about Big Thief, having only listened to a few tracks off this year’s new album Capacity on my laptop on the day of the gig. If I’m honest, it didn’t really grab me so I didn’t bust a gut to get to the venue too early.
Big Thief were on stage when I arrived, having to succumb to a pint of San Miguel at the eye-watering price of £5.40 due to the heat, and I was immediately intrigued.
The first thing I picked up was a Lucinda Williams twang in Adrianne Lenker’s voice, with the first couple of songs I caught both coming off 2016 debut Masterpiece, the title track and then the much more experimental Real Love.
Guitarist Buck Meek was playing an instrument that I could have seen George Harrison wielding, while Max Oleartchik was plucking on a violin bass, a la Paul McCartney (I have no idea if it was a Höfner or not), though the band sounded nothing at all like The Beatles!
Not to leave anyone out, I should state that the drums were played by the impressively hirsute James Krivchenia.
Solo song Lorraine reminded me of a cross between Oh Susanna and Vashsti Bunyan, while final number Mary off this year’s Capacity album brought in elements of Harvest Moon-era Neil Young and Mary Margaret O’Hara.
The New York-based combo announced that they would be back again in October, although sadly I discovered that just meant back in the UK, and not in Liverpool. However, I shall certainly now be on the look-out for Capacity.
After the usual short wait, out came Conor Oberst and his band, which it later transpired were largely members of the excellent Felice Brothers. While I enjoyed Big Thief¸ it’s a shame that The Felice Brothers themselves weren’t the support act.
Bassist Josh Rawson reminded me of James Mercer from The Shins, while guitarist Wesley Taylor looked like some kind of good ol’ boy, or a member of Dinosaur Jr.. James Felice was on accordion and piano, with the rest of the band being drummer Billy Lawrence and Greg Farley on violin.
The first number was Barbary Coast (Later) off the latest album Salutations (and also the previous solo Ruminations album, all of which was re-recorded for Salutations, together with seven other songs). This made me think of 1970’s era Bob Dylan, only partly due to the use of harmonica – a much under-used instrument these days.
Nearly half of the set came from Salutations, but there was plenty of older material too, from both Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes releases, with second number Four Winds coming from the band’s 2007 album Cassadaga, which brought Dexys to mind for me.
Get-Well-Cards off his eponymous 2008 album was introduced as being “about forgiveness with a capital F”.
Oberst moved to keyboards for Too Late To Fixate, the opening track on Salutations, while Ten Women from 2009’s Outer South featured some excellent accordion work (as did some other, later songs).
The oldest song he played was Something Vague from 2000’s Fevers And Mirrors, which he introduced by saying that he had written it when he was nineteen (true), but was now in his fifties (he’s only 37). He said it was “like when Sir Paul goes out and sings Hey Jude… this one’s for him”.
Overdue, co-written with James Felice, is a track with real killer verses, and was a real highlight of the set.
Artifact #1 from 2014’s Upside Down Mountain featured some great wig-out frenzy before Oberst returned to the keyboards, segueing into Salutations.
The band then went off, leaving just Oberst and Taylor to perform a truly beautiful version of First Day Of My Life, originally released on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.
The band returned for A Little Uncanny off the new record before all going off to deafening applause. Unsurprisingly, there was more to come.
First up was a solo piano version of a new song, called something like No One Is Gonna Change, with the rest of the band coming back for Cape Canaveral, which featured some really impressive drumming.
The really enjoyable set finally closed with the truly rocking Napalm, yet another song from Salutations.
Oberst is someone whose records I have tended to like more than love over the years, but this gig brought me a new appreciation of his music, and was probably my favourite of the year so far. I may also have to add some more Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes albums to my collection…
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Here is some of the music from the night on Spotify: