Live at O2 Academy Leeds on Wednesday, 13th July 2011
Referring to the city in which you are playing as 'a hole in the middle of nowhere' is an interesting way of striking up a rapport with your audience but Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) just about gets away with it through a mixture of boyish enthusiasm and insouciant arrogance that characterizes much of this eagerly awaited show, the scale of which is testament to the position Oberst now holds in the indie rock firmament. Gone are the days when Bright Eyes performances took place in small pubs, attended by a small group of devotees; now they take place in sizable venues and feature two, at times dueling, drummers, a musical director and crowd surfing - a sure sign of a desire to be seen as a fully fledged 'rock star'.
As is to be expected, the bulk of tonight's set list is taken from new album The People's Key and it's this album's synth-heavy pop vibe that sets the tone but first Oberst kicks things off with a frenetically enthusiastic rendition of Four Winds from previous album Cassadega, with long time right hand man Mike Mogis substituting pedal steel guitar for the original's violin melody. Proceedings change gear swiftly with the big, pop hooks of Lightning Seeds-esque Shell Games, whilst the ebullient Jejune Stars finds Oberst whirling around the stage in a kinetic frenzy. The pace is slowed for the subdued, dub-inflected Approximate Sunlight and the tender piano ballad Ladder Song but it's the older songs that seem to really engage the crowd. If The Brakeman Turns My Way is delivered with an intensity that is lacking in some of the new material and Lover I Don't Have To Love is full of bluster and bravado. The encore brings a groove-laden extended drum introduction to One For You, One For Me but the goodwill built soon dissipates somewhat with an needlessly obtuse version of Road to Joy replete with the now de rigueur atonal psychedelic wig out. It says something that a rousing, communal cover of Gillian Welch's Wrecking Ball performed with the assistance of support act Jenny and Johnny is perhaps the highlight of the night showing, as it does, a more humble side to Oberst. There is no doubting that he is a prolific and gifted songwriter but at times tonight, despite his protestations to the contrary, his mannered aloofness creates a distance between himself and the audience; consequently this is a gig that is easy to admire but difficult to love.