Manchester has a great history of producing legendary musical acts, from The Smiths to Oasis and Joy Division to James and New Order. The list isn’t endless, but it is substantial. So it seemed only fitting that I should see one of my personal Gods of emotionally tinged sad music, Conor Oberst, at a converted church in this city.
The Albert Hall was originally built as the Methodist Central Hall in 1908 and was designed with Baroque and Gothic elements. Its Chapel Hall was unused from 1969 until its renovation as a concert venue in 2012-13. That’s more or less all Wikipedia tells us about the building, which is a quite beautiful and atmospheric venue, ideal for a gig like this.
Getting there was somewhat less beautiful, however. Ordinarily any day which begins with your weak and weary eyes taking in the surroundings of the easyhotel in Glasgow can surely only get better, but the cold which made the football barely tolerable the night before was in no mood to let me cling to that hope. A three-hour train journey to Manchester seemed as palatable to me as the beef and ale pie I would later attempt to consume at a Wetherspoons on Oxford Street.
As I sat in my seat on the train awaiting its departure and listening to my playlist of sad emo songs by Conor Oberst in an attempt to brighten my outlook, a large older gentleman hobbled slowly towards the seats at the opposite side of the table from me. He spilled into both of them in the manner I’d imagine a bowl of jelly might and it became clear that he had purchased two tickets for them. I observed him as he emptied his bag of shortbread and chocolate and his wallet and a diary and various other items, before proceeding to tear up several sheets from his sticky pad and attach the pieces to his belongings. It was a curious thing to witness, and sadly the most interesting sight of the entire journey.
Things would get better, eventually, with a beer. Don’t they always? Fortunately there is a BrewDog bar adjacent to the Albert Hall where I could enjoy pints of Dead Pony Club in the company of several other flannel clad fans of misery. On the downside I was only capable of drinking three beers, which was due to either the man flu sweeping my body or the fear of missing the 7.19 train back to Glasgow the next morning. Whatever it was, this was the most sober gig I’ve been to in some time.
There is something inherent about a church, I feel, that makes a person cough. That was one facet of my cold that was missing, right up until I entered the Albert Hall. Then I found myself clearing my throat and coughing incessantly, and I wasn’t alone. The difficult part was trying to find an appropriate point during these poignant acoustic songs at which to let them out. It felt like being nine-years-old again and at mass on a Sunday morning trying to stifle a cough – usually brought on by the incense – because the priest was still delivering his important reading,
This venue still looks much like a place of religious gathering, with its stained glass windows and beautiful terracotta decor, the organ resplendent at the back of what would once have been the altar and is now a stage. Its acoustics capture wonderfully the emotion in Conor Oberst’s voice; the sharp sorrow of his harmonica. The show leans heavily on his most recent release, Ruminations, which was recorded over three days in New York City with little more than the equipment seen on stage last night, making this feel as though we were being brought right into the album. You could almost taste the liquor on Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out, a song about the NYC bar “that saved my life.”
Uncanny was preceded by an apology for America and “the orange rat” and an impassioned plea for human beings to stick together. We’re probably going to hear a lot more of this at gigs over the next four years, or until Trump is impeached, whichever comes first.
The triumvirate of Bright Eyes songs that closed out the night were the undoubted highlight, with Phoebe Bridges almost stealing the show on Lua; her voice was flawless and haunting. At The Bottom of Everything was a lively, foot-stomping finale, with its final line stating that “I’m happy just because I found that I am truly no-one” seeming somehow fitting.