Saturday, 6 September 2008

Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band, Electric Ballroom, London, 27 August 2008

Akin to the patterns of the Camden venue's lighting system that evening, the gig was simplistic, but better for it.

Initially finding fame as the singer and creative force behind Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has recently begun touring to promote his latest album, under a self-titled moniker. Although not always deliberately, I've managed to catch him at various stages of his career, from a sunny Sunday morning at Glastonbury in 2004 to his white-suited performance at the same festival three years later. Throughout these performances he often seemed on the defensive and compensated through sarcastic comments, intoxication or both. In one instance, the only thing that seemed to relax him was the lead singer of the Dresden Dolls streaking across the stage to kiss him before being dragged away by bemused security guards.

Tonight, however, seeming less inebriated than usual, Conor took to the stage with a firm 'hello London' and immediately got into the first track - the upbeat 'Sausalito'. His new bandmates have a pretty focused set, with less of the roughness and chaos that often accompanies a Bright Eyes performance. They all work well together, happy to sit back when necessary, such as in 'Money Lenders in the Temple' and the softer (than the CD) version of 'Cape Canaveral'. On the other hand, he seemed relieved to relinquish the stage for other members of the 'Mystic Valley Band', with both the lead guitar and drummer taking on lead vocal duties. Cape Canaveral, where he alone took to the stage, had a bleak, unabashed melancholy, with Conor contemplating the 1960s, while firmly drumming his knuckles on the side of his Collings guitar. With a notable absence of the steel guitar and the more operatic strings and brass sections, the tunes were more raw and firm, and yet markedly 'live' in contrast to the album.

Although the controversy that usually accompanies his performances was lacking this evening, Conor maintained his kooky personality through his occasional interactions with the crowd. At one point he began musing on going to the dentist, likening the experience to being at a 'space dentist', while later commenting on the band's state of health, being 'ill, physically, mentally and spiritually'. If this makes any sense to you, then I recommend listening to his lyrics on the album, as they prove just as eccentric.

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