Conor Oberst @ Barbican Centre, London

“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.

Old Crow Medicine Show @ Barrowlands, Glasgow for Celtic Connections 2013


Walking back down the Gallowgate after this rousing night at the acclaimed Barrowlands Ballroom the conversation amongst the dispersing crowd was of how this used to be the sort of night frequently enjoyed at the venue; a proper Friday night at the Barrowlands.  While I never experienced the famed dance hall of the 50’s and 60’s, I had a clearer idea of what it must have been like after this gig.

Old Crow Medicine show are a fine band in the most traditional sense.  They are all brilliant musicians and a number of them play various instruments throughout the set.  This was a blaze of fiddles, banjo, harmonica and guitar as the Tennessee folk group played a wide-range of songs from their back catalogue.

Ketch Secor sought to endear himself to the natives with numerous references to Scotland and, somewhat oddly, Sauchiehall Street, which he managed to shoehorn into the Woodie Guthrie classic This Land Is Your Land.

But, really, this crowd-pleasing device wasn’t necessary as the strength of their songs and the quality of their music was more than enough to satisfy a sold-out audience.  New material such as Carry Me Back To Virginia and the wild Mississippi Saturday Night sat comfortably with Crow classics like Take ‘em Away, CC Rider and, of course, Wagon Wheel.

The attempts at pandering to the natives went a little too far with a cringe-worthy rendition of Paul McCartney’s Give Ireland Back To The Irish – with Scotland/Scottish naturally substituting for the Irish.  The political situation in Scotland is such that nobody here, let alone in America, knows what independence would bring and, as such, support for the SNP proposal is at an all-time low.

They managed to salvage the situation with an encore-closing performance of the Pogues classic Dirty Old Town, a decision which ended a thoroughly enjoyable set on a high and sending a couple of thousand people off into the night dreaming of the way things used to be.