For a gig of over 1000 capacity, you need both artist and venue to work in harmony for the scale not to become an obstacle for intimacy. Tonight, the first part of the equation is a no-brainer: anyone who has spent an evening in the Albert Hall knows well that no comparably sized room in Manchester can hold a candle to it. But the other side of the equation is in formidably able hands too on this occasion: Conor Oberst has been doing this for decades, and has never been better.
Taking his seat by the piano at the start of this set, harmonica around his neck, he cuts an unassuming figure on stage. Joined only by Miwi La Lupa on guitar, you could be forgiven for wondering whether his fragile songs could get lost on a platform this intimidating. And then he starts singing.
‘Tachycardia’ is the opening track of the set and of his recent acoustic album Ruminations. The record seemed to slip out towards the end of last year, not attracting the attention of the peak Bright Eyes years of the 2000s, but it is his most compelling and candid set of songs to date (so much so that next month his new album, Salutations, will be comprised of the same songs recorded with a full band). This opener sets the tone: it is a disarmingly honest account of the immense personal difficulties that arose from a false sexual assault accusation that he faced in 2014. “In a courtroom, sweat rolling down my back/It’s a bad dream, I have it seven times a week/No it’s not me, but I’m the one who has to die,” he sings.
The crowd is paralysed as he sings. It is as if Oberst can control the air particles in the room, holding them in suspended stillness. The only sound that breaks the purity of Oberst and La Lupa’s music is the pitter-patter of raindrops on the church windows. He plays us almost the entirety of Ruminations: ‘You All Loved Him Once’, about a formerly adored performer who has fallen on hard times; ‘Gossamer Thin’, where he brings us into his therapy sessions; and ‘Barbary Coast (Later)’, where he indulges a flight of fancy as he lives out the life of Paul Gauguin. The crowd hang on every word.
If it all sounds a bit gloomy, then his repartee between songs is frequently hilarious. He flips out at social media, but special venom is saved for his country’s newly elected leader, who is only referenced as “that fucking orange rat”. His anger is deliberately hysterical, but he pulls himself around by the end to implore us to “stay engaged, don’t get apathetic and remember about human interaction”. With that, he launches into ‘A Little Uncanny’, the only serious glimpse of the righteous fury that ran through his classic 2007 album Cassadaga.
The set is split in two around a 15-minute interval. The second half sees Phoebe Bridges join the pair on stage for a brace of stunning covers: Gillian Welch’s visionary Americana paean ‘Everything Is Free’ and The Felice Brothers’ recent track ‘Jack At The Asylum’ (Oberst describes the latter as his favourite band ever). Bridges’ beautiful velvet vocals are the perfect counterpoint to Oberst, as is proven by their rapturous performance of ‘Lua’, from 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. It is the first of a trio of Bright Eyes songs with which Oberst chooses to close the show: ‘The Big Picture’ from Lifted… sees him wrapped up so much in the emotion of the song that he knocks the mic stand off the stage; and closer ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’ becomes a stomping clap-along communal performance.
It may prove to be the case that the forthcoming second effort of making a hit album out of these songs is more fruitful. For now, those in attendance will hopefully spread the news far and wide: Conor Oberst is better now than ever.