A night in the church (aka Conor Oberst @ Albert Hall, Manchester)

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.

Ryan Adams @ Albert Hall, Manchester/Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

You might think that after 11 years spent travelling up and down the country seeing this guy play fifteen times Ryan Adams wouldn’t have any more surprises in his guitar case, but two nights in Manchester and Glasgow this week thoroughly disproved any such thoughts.

Touring with a band for the first time in over five years clearly gives him a lot more leverage in the scope of his setlist, and the spreading of the burden with four others on stage had Ryan at his most visibly relaxed in years.  These were two excellent shows powered by a phenomenal energy – both on stage and off – and some big ass amps.  This was Ryan at his loudest and most confident.

As expected, the set list followed the same pattern as three previous shows in London, with its foundation built largely on his strong recent self-titled release.  Gimme Something Good has an almost grungey feel to it and works as a fine opener, Fix It has been reinvented with a brilliant bluesy sound, while Let It Ride has always been a superb live hit.  But it was the surprise introductions of songs long not heard at a Ryan Adams gig which really made these nights special.

When Ryan began tuning his guitar under the gaze of a gigantic organ in what was once a Methodist church in Manchester, telling the audience that he was going to play a song he hadn’t played in years, little would anyone have guessed he and his band were going to dust off Rock N Roll’s Anybody Wanna Take Me Home?, a song not played since 2006.  It was a revelation, perfectly suited to the occasion and a performance which ranked as a true highlight from the two nights.

But even that was nothing when compared to what would come the following night.  I’ve long suspected that Ryan Adams saves his best performances for Glasgow – the city has almost always provided the best night on his UK tours.  His statement of love for the city on Thursday night is one he doesn’t make often – if at all.  It felt genuine, and he followed it with a song he claimed the band had been working on all day specially for the occasion – a glorious harmonica-driven version of New York, New York.  It was breathtaking; a truly spine-tingling moment.  This is the this different version of this song I’ve heard Ryan play, and it may have been the best.  To then come up with La Cienega Just Smiled later in the set, one of the most bitter and beautiful songs in his extensive back catalogue and another rarely played, was almost overwhelming.  It was a very fine point in as close to a flawless performance as you could imagine.  His appreciation of Glasgow even extended to affording us the opportunity to select the “encore” song (after a long fake encore which concluded with the audience singing the same not) – it was a decision almost as contentious as the referendum, with Come Pick Me Up gaining a louder applause than Political Scientist.  I voted for both.

These two nights offered everything you’ve come to expect from a Ryan Adams gig over the last 11 years – and just a little bit more:  The hilarious improvised song in Glasgow about “Mr Stage Secrity Right” – who Ryan had earlier berated for shining a torch in his direction, an act which he later felt so bad about that he composed an off-the-cuff song as way of apology; the frequent Star Wars references; the tight, almost perfectly selected set lists; the voice which seems to get better with age; complaints about sound quality in Manchester (he still seemed pissed about this the next night).  It was all here – with a couple of phenomenal surprises on top.