Conor Oberst in Portsmouth: a magical gig

Last night’s Conor Oberst gig in Portsmouth was a stunner. The city’s sold-out Wedgwood Rooms, a tiny venue holding about 500, standing, was treated to a committed, energetic Oberst show, with powerful support from his Mystic Valley Band.

The 1 hour 40 minute show took you on an eclectic, richly musical tour, veering from country rock to confessional singer-songwriter balladry and new wave/indie rock to the Chicago blues.

The core of the set was a trio of songs from the fine new album (also called Conor Oberst): Moab, Milk Thistle, and I Don’t Want To Die (In The Hospital).

A highlight – one among many – was a rousing blues version of Corrina Corrina, the trad ballad popularized by Bob Dylan (on The Freewheelin’…). It showed the Mystic Valley Band – three guitars, drums and keyboards/synth/flugelhorn – at their best. The impossibly young lad playing bottleneck seized his opportunity to excel.

The Mystic Valley Band were a fine complement to Oberst all night long – having clearly bonded creatively and socially during the gestation of the new album in remote rural Mexico.

Conor Oberst (the artist formerly known for Bright Eyes), an engaging, immensely likeable performer, overcame a heavy cold just to be there – he was sweating profusely, spluttering, drinking, even spitting (!) all night long. Many less committed musos would have stayed in bed in the hotel with a hot water bottle and a pile of pills. Oberst worked very hard – and enjoyed it.

The head cold – and the mainly rock-out setlist – meant that Oberst’s signature, keening, tremulous vocals, were reined in, except in the ballads. Watching him from 10 feet away reminded me just what a gifted musician, songwriter and performer he really is: few contemporary rockers can touch him.

I half believe that rock is dead, but gigs like last night’s magical Conor Oberst show prove that it has plenty of life left – it just depends who’s playing.

Catch this tour! Buy the new album!

Gerry Smith

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