Conor Oberst is an American hero. The country just doesn’t know it. Well, some of them do… but this magical musician makes his music in the margins and only crosses the line into the mainstream when it suits him. Right now? He’s in the mood. Especially last week in Liverpool. By Denis Parkinson.

Brand recognition is a powerful thing and to transcend it is an increasingly rare feat within music. To achieve it without losing quality or alienating your audience is a marvel. Conor Oberst is Bright Eyes, of course, but he is also so much more.

Oberst has been consistently and positively labelled as ‘the new Bob Dylan’ for many years and although there is a kernel of truth there, it feels like not only lazy criticism but somehow not quite the whole story. A guitar, harmonica and superlative songwriting are shared features, but Oberst has spent his career distilling and perfecting Conor Oberst. Through Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, Mystic Valley Band and Monsters of Folk he has kept moving until many brands have become one. He is not the new Dylan… he is Conor Oberst.

In recent years, performing under his own name while living up to his own legacy, he has become much more than the sum of his parts and, last week in Liverpool at O2 Academy, we had the privilege of joining him for part of his journey. This was a powerful, riveting performance and the six people on-stage were clearly enjoying themselves and playing from the heart. Indeed, to have four of the Felice Brothers on-stage would have been a spectacle worth seeing on its own – but they were just the coolest backing band since The Hawks joined Dylan. I know… resisting writing that was just too hard.

The set was drawn from many aspects of Oberst’s musical past. Current material sat seamlessly alongside older songs. This wasn’t a greatest hits set, but a well-judged and balanced collection including gems such as ‘Southern State’ and Bright Eyes’ highlight ‘First Day Of My Life’. Conor switched from acoustic guitar to piano and to electric guitar with great effect and there was an intensity that was hard to look away from.

The songs are introspective for the most part, with a precise and insightful view of both personal and wider political issues. There is anger, love and heartbreak in these songs and an authenticity that is mesmerising… the performance appeared cathartic for both the audience and performers. There was a new song, ‘No One Is Going To Change’, that was uncomfortable to hear and listening to it felt like eavesdropping on the most personal conversation set to solo piano. I felt guilty enjoying it, but you couldn’t look away. The final song, ‘Napalm’, from current album ‘Salutations’, was an excellent end to the evening highlighting the strength of the latest material.

The performance was a triumph and confirmation that ‘Conor Oberst’ is now a clearly defined brand and growing in stature with every record and performance.

Pic by Sakura