“I don’t know why you guys sit and listen to this shit,” joked Conor at his self-deprecating best as he mused over popular culture and how he’s never really fit into it. We all knew why we were sitting there, of course, but by the end of a startlingly beautiful and intimate two hour set there could be no question that not being popular doesn’t equate to not being good.
The Barbican isn’t a small venue by any means – it is Europe’s largest multi -arts centre, in fact – but this felt like the most intimate of shows. For large parts of the set Conor was on stage alone with his guitars and wine and beers. You get the impression he likes it that way.
This was a rare insight into the sprawling songbook of one of the most prolific and poetic songwriters of the 21st century. Songs from across Oberst’s body of work were torn off like plasters from a wound and pieced together to form this mosaic of a setlist. There was the futuristic Cape Canaveral from his solo record; Breezy with the Mystic Valley Band; Maps of the World represented the Monsters of Folk project and, of course, Bright Eyes featured prominently from early work such as Arienette from Fevers and Mirrors to the more recent Shell Games.
The intimate nature of the performance allowed the audience to hear every word clearly recited by the Nebraskan. There was a hush as he wove complex stories through song; his voice contorted and aching, every strum and pluck of his guitar reverberating around the Barbican like a heartbeat, every nauseating flaw of the characters in his songs laid bare: the addicts and the heartbroken and the victims and the hopeful. The extent of the beauty in his songwriting had never been more evident.
However, as captivating as the depth of songwriting was it was the addition of Simi Stone and her angelic vocals and haunting violin which created the evening’s standout moment as the duo collaborated on a breathtaking Lua. I have goosebumps right now just reminiscing it, and the exclamation of “wow” from a member of the audience at the climax about captured it. In ten years of going to gigs I have never experienced the feelings conjoured by Conor and Simi at that moment.
The final line in the final song of the night, Waste of Paint, has Conor announcing that “I have no faith but it is all I want, to be loved and believe in my soul, in my soul.” On the evidence of the beauty and charm and intensity of his talent Oberst has every reason to have faith. And if he still doesn’t, there were at least 2,000 in the Barbican Centre who believed last night. Over the last 18 months or so I’ve become quite partial to these intimate solo acoustic shows, having seen Ryan Adams perfect them. They are capable of showing an artist at his very best, bringing out the most delicate aspects of his repetoire often hidden amongst drums and bass. Last night in London Conor Oberst excelled in this intimate setting. If this wasn’t the best gig I’ve been to it was certainly very, very close.