Review: Conor Oberst, Queen’s Hall

Dark times, they say, have the power to bring out the poets.

With a dangerous, delusional lunatic freshly sworn in as the President of the United States, some might say that we are most certainly living in dark times right now.

Enter, house left, Conor Oberst.

On Friday night, at the Queen’s Hall, the mercurial singer-songwriter took a moment during his intimate-feeling, stripped-down gig to apologise – yes apologise – for his country. “I’m so sorry for America,” he said, laying down his stance on Donald Trump to huge cheers. “It’s gonna be sad, and scary. But if we just stick together guys, please.”

The previous night, at Manchester’s Albert Hall, the Bright Eyes founder took aim at his country’s president (“that orange rat”) on several occasions, but here in Edinburgh, a city he was performing in live for the first time, he mentioned Trump only once or twice.

Nevertheless, the sadness he feels at Trump’s election was never far from the surface.

Oberst, lest we forget, wrote perhaps the finest protest song of the George W Bush era, the caustic When The President Talks To God. It remains to be seen what one of music’s finest wordsmiths will have to say about his country’s new president, but you can bet that when he does he will bring the hammer down hard and fast on “that orange rat”.

On tour with latest solo album Ruminations, Oberst was joined on stage by talented New York-born musician Miwi La Lupa, who opened proceedings with a well-received support set, the highlight being the title track from his second album, Ended Up Making Love.

Next to the stage was Los Angeles singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, who is best known primarily for one 7″ single, Killer, which was released via Ryan Adams’ label.

At the Queen’s Hall, Bridgers only had time for around half a dozen of her melancholy indie-folk songs, but in that short time the talented 22-year-old offered more than enough evidence to suggest she is destined for very big things. Remember the name.

After a short break in proceedings, Oberst arrived on stage to rapturous applause and, without introduction, took his place at the piano for opening numbers Tachycardia and Gossamer Thin. Both are fairly bleak songs the 36-year-old sung in his trademark trembling vocal, in between blasts on the harmonica. He then moved centre stage for a fabulous rendition of Counting Sheep – all three opening tracks from Ruminations.

The gig was split into two parts and, in an eight-song opening section, the highlights were A Little Uncanny (one of Ruminations’ most upbeat, radio-friendly songs), The Ladder Song (a heartbreaking piano-led ballad from Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key), and Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out (a song about a Manhattan bar, which, coincidently or not, shares its name with the patron saint of the nervous, emotionally disturbed and mentally ill).

The second half of Oberst’s set included two covers – an excellent rendition of Gillian Welch’s Everything Is Free, and The Felice Brothers’ Jack At The Asylum. But it was the final three songs of the evening – all Bright Eyes numbers – that really got the crowd going. Phoebe Bridges returned to lend her angelic voice to a staggeringly-beautiful working of Lua, before long-time fans were treated to The Big Picture, from the 2002 album Lifted.

The 18-song set ended with the Bright Eyes anthem At The Bottom Of Everything, which provided an irresistible invitation to a handful of die-hard fans to rush towards the stage, their arms aloft with triumph. All told, Friday night’s gig was precisely that – a triumph.

Words: Gary Flockhart

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