Music review: Conor Oberst

Oberst has a gift for sharp, open-hearted, picaresque lyrics
Oberst has a gift for sharp, open-hearted, picaresque lyrics
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Conor Oberst is utterly adored by his faithful followers, and at the ABC he bashfully entertained several ecstatic declarations of love from members of the thronging crowd. The average alt-country artist tends to inspire muted respect rather than outright ardour. Oberst’s music cleaves wholeheartedly to the standard indie folk/country template, so what makes him so special?

ABC, Glasgow ***

I think it’s the way he projects the kind of intense sensitivity that music-lovers of a certain disposition find difficult to resist. He’s one of us, yet ever so slightly otherworldly.

Also, his voice, an affecting coyote warble, and his gift for writing sharp, open-hearted, picaresque lyrics sets him apart from his more conservative guitar-strumming contemporaries. He sounds not unlike Donovan, if the sunshine superman had hailed from Nebraska rather than Glasgow.

That’s why he gets away with writing music which, while perfectly listenable on its own terms, is entirely the sum of its obvious Americana influences.

He’s indebted to Wilco, The Band and Bob Dylan in his “thin wild mercury” electrified pomp. Dylan didn’t invent the harmonica holder, of course, but whenever an artist such as Oberst straps one on, the homage is explicit. His songs are timeless in the sense that they all remind you of things you’ve heard before, but they never recall a specific piece of music.

They’re not rip-offs. That’s Oberst’s other gift. He sticks doggedly to familiar chord patterns, but usually manages to wring something fresh and good out of them.

Backed by an impressively tight five-piece band, including fiddle player Gregory Farley and accordionist/keyboardist James Felice from alt-country favourites The Felice Brothers, Oberst sailed smoothly through a set built around material from his seven solo albums and a scattering of fan favourites from his Bright Eyes days.

With such a vast back catalogue to choose from – he’s released 26 albums in total, the first recorded when he was just 13 – it’s a wonder the gig didn’t last all night.

Thankfully, he kept things focused. Whenever the performance threatened to become a little too mellow, he spiked the energy levels with some of his breezier or more dramatic efforts.

He didn’t talk to his acolytes much, but when he did it was with warmth, humility and helpful explanations as to what the next song was about.

While I don’t believe that Oberst is the genius his fans make him out to be, this was a sweet, enjoyable love-in.

PAUL WHITELAW