Better Oblivion Community Center, Shepherds Bush Empire

IMG_3255London, Saturday May 11, 2019

When arriving inside the Shepherds Bush Empire venue for tonight’s concert with Better Oblivion Community Center, the first thing I notice are two small screens on both sides of the stage. At first, a white screen, then a hand starts drawing on a piece of paper and over the next few minutes a face begins to take shape and it becomes obvious that the anonymous hand is drawing Donald Trump. Then a new blank piece of paper fills the screen and the hand starts drawing again. This time it looks like an animal. A wolf? A pig? A dragon? A horse? Considering the long neck I’m guessing a wolf’ish horse. Then, on another blank piece of paper, the hand draws the backs of a couple looking through a doorway, and as more details are drawn it becomes clear that the drawing is the same as one of the posters that can be bought in the merchandise stall – these are the backs of tonight’s main attractions, Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst.

Support act Kristian comes on stage. An affable guy who nearly talks as much as he sings. One of the anecdotes he tells us, is about a woman who’d seen Motorhead in this same venue, back in the day, and they played so loud that she wanted to puke, but she didn’t want to leave until they played their most famous song, Ace of Spades. However, she had to wait through the whole set, as that song was only played at the end. Kristian tells us to tell him if we are feeling sick from him playing too loud, the joke being, that a singer-songwriter on an acoustic guitar is very unlikely to play loud enough to make anyone puke. 

He also asks us if we’d watched the football today. The stereotype that some Americans might have, that all Brits watch ‘the football’. Well, a crowd for Better Oblivion Community Center is, on average, probably less likely to be interested in football than, say, a Liam Gallagher crowd. Not surprisingly, this particular comment falls a bit flat. Otherwise, Kristian’s songs are very listenable and pleasant but they don’t really offer anything new or extraordinary to the singer-songwriter genre.

I sit next to a woman who comments on almost everything Kristian says to her friend sitting next to her. She also shouts ‘Woo’ quite regularly. There’s always someone like this at gigs, and I always get the impression that this kind of concert-goer is more there to be heard than to hear the band.

Then Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst enter the stage with their band, drummer, bass player and support act Kristian on guitar and keyboards.

Their backdrop is a large picture of a waiting area in an airport or train station, with a sign hanging above the empty rows of chairs. The sign reads: ‘It will end in tears’. This backdrop does add a melancholy feeling to songs – no matter what the song is about, or how upbeat or downbeat it may be, we’re all forever in a waiting area; waiting to go somewhere, waiting to meet someone, waiting to find the courage to make that change – always waiting for something, always on the way somewhere, even if that ‘somewhere’ is just around the corner.

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Phoebe Bridgers gets the first word in when she asks the audience, ’S’up’?

In many ways, Conor and Phoebe suit each other well; the younger singer-songwriter who grew up listening to the older singer-songwriter, but both meeting on equal terms, with an obvious mutual respect for one another’s material. They mix their performance up well, singing some songs together, sometimes Conor sings Phoebe’s songs and sometimes Phoebe sings Conor’s songs, each willingly letting the other have their share of the spotlight, which they never seem to be competing for. 

Phoebe’s sugary sweet vocals layered on top of Conor’s rawer and more fragile voice works well, but Bridgers is perhaps a bit too ‘white bread’ for my taste. Her voice is sweet and floury, whereas Oberst adds the salt and grain, thus giving the songs he sings an edge. This is especially evident when they sing one of Conor’s most popular and affecting songs, Lua. The original version feels naked and intimate, whereas Phoebe’s voice, however beautifully she sings, makes the song too… nice, which makes it lose the very edge that made me love the song in the first place. But of course, that’s a matter of opinion and judging by the crowd’s reaction I’m sure there are a lot of people in the audience who would disagree with me.

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A highlight for me is when they do a comic, sweet Exception to the Rule, complete with two colourful deck chairs and beach balloons. Before the song Conor pretends they’re about to do a TedTalk and asks Phoebe what she thinks of Brexit. She doesn’t reply, but large parts of the audience boos, and that’s answer enough. Another highlight is when they do a wondrously joyful cover of All the Umbrellas in London by The Magnetic Fields.

Better Oblivion Community Center’s debut (and only) album is a good collection of well-crafted songs, but for anyone familiar with Conor’s previous output in his many solo- and group-projects, in comparison these songs seem more polished than what he normally does, which is both appealing but also a bit bland, and dare I say, average, at times. But Conor, Phoebe and their band members play and sing great, and there’s a lovely vibe coming from the stage, giving the impression that this is a group of people who enjoy each other’s company.

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The last line of the last song, Dominos, feels very poignant: ‘And if you don’t feel great, tomorrow will be better’. I keep hearing this line in my head on my way home and it’s only later, when I look the song up online, that I realise the line actually way: ‘And if you’re not feeling ready, there’s always tomorrow’. Not sure why I heard it the way I did, but either way, this idea, that ’tomorrow is another day’, is something we should all remind ourselves as often as needed.

Better Oblivion Community Center setlist
1. My City
2. Big Black Heart
3. Sleepwalkin’
4. Would You Rather (Phoebe Bridgers song)
5. Dylan Thomas
6. Forest Lawn
7. Exception to the Rule
8. Cheapsake
9. Lime Tree (Bright Eyes song)
10. Service Road
11. Little Trouble
12. All the Umbrellas in London (The Magnetic Fields cover)
13. Lua (Bright Eyes song)
14. Funeral (Phoebe Bridgers song)
15. Didn’t Know What I was in For
Encore
16. Scott Street (Phoebe Bridgers song)
17. Easy/Lucky/Free (Bright Eyes song)
18. Dominos

Gods of Rap: De La Soul, Public Enemy (Radio), Wu-Tang Clan, Wembley Arena

IMG_3064London, Friday May 10, 2019

I arrive at Wembley Arena as De La Soul is about to go on stage and I figure I can catch most of their set but there’s a huge and slow moving queue outside the arena and the length of De La Soul’s set is shorter than the length of the queue. This hasn’t been well planned and I’m disappointed to miss out on one of the three acts that I’ve paid a substantial amount of money to see. When I later hear that De La Soul mainly played new music and hardly any of the classics I know and love, because of a dispute with their record label, my disappoint diminishes, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was awful planning… by me, or by Wembley Arena, or perhaps both. Arriving inside, the stale stench of beer and junk food greets me and I hurry up the stairs to get inside the arena and away from the smell. Public Enemy, or rather, Public Enemy Radio as they’re now called, take to the stage shortly afterwards and the excitement is undeniable.

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I’m immediately impressed by Chuck D’s vocals – a voice of determination and conviction. It’s a pleasure to hear him rap his way through classics like Don’t Believe the Hype and Fight the Power. Flavor Flav is absent, for, to me, unknown reasons, but though it would have been great to hear the legendary ‘Yeah, booooy’ shoutout, I don’t mind too much that he isn’t there. Chuck D once said about him, ‘Flavor is the dude who presents disorder…’. There’s nothing disorderly about Public Enemy (Radio) this evening, and considering the way of the world at the moment and how disorderly our current crop of politicians are, it’s a relief to see that at least some people, if not our politicians, can get straight to the point with no fucking around, and articulate well-informed observations of the world in an, dare I say, orderly fashion. Chuck D is the real deal, and with DJ Lord, emcee Jahi and two of the military-clad S1W-dancers (making very understated dance moves), Mr. D makes sure to show us all who’s the Boss of Rap. Considering the name of the tour, I should maybe name him God of Rap, but I think that’s a bit excessive.

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In between the groups DJ Premier keeps the beat going and gets the arena singing along to hits like Ready or Not (Here I Come). His enthusiasm seems real and he feels present.

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Then it’s time for Wu-Tang Clan who we already know is without perhaps their most prominent member, Method Man. Why, no one seems to be sure of – something to do with money? It’s a shame, but for someone who’s never seen them before there’s no previous performance to compare with, so it doesn’t bother me too much. Anyway, there are nine of them for God’s sake, who can keep track of all of them anyway? Well, I’m going to try…

GZA, RZA, U-God, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck. The son of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard – conveniently named, Young Dirty Bastard – is part of the line-up and he sounds uncannily like his old man and is also the most animated member of the group, jumping into the crowd for Shimmy Shimmy Ya.

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Though Wu-Tang Clan (most of them) are definitely in the house, they don’t feel as present as DJ Premier or Chuck D. At times, they just saunter around the stage waiting for their turn to dominate the mic. Maybe that’s just the way it is when you’re that many members of a group, all waiting for their turn to shine, but at times it is a bit underwhelming, and sometimes it looks like chaos in slow motion, almost comical. They sound best when not too many shout into their mics at the same time, again, a numbers thing. I guess it’s harder to co-ordinate quality control between nine people, than four or five people. 

Still, they sound great in spurts, and when they sound great, they sound really great, despite Wembley Arena’s less-than-great sound system. The excellence of their musical catalogue can hardly be disputed, with songs like Protect Ya Neck, C.R.E.A.M., and Clan in Da Front. They also get the crowd singing along, flashing the lights on their mobile phones and waving their hands in the air, shouting the obligatory ‘Shit yeah’, ‘Hell yeah’, ‘Fuck yeah’ – standard band-crowd interaction, but a standard interaction that works.

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It would have been best to see tonight’s bands in a smaller venue, but when that many people want to see you, what can you do? It would have been preferable if De La Soul could have played all their songs; if the queues outside the venue had been better managed; if Flavor Flav had been there; Method Man, ditto. Also, I could have done without Wu-Tang Clan’s rendition of Come Together by The Beatles – it didn’t really work. But it was a great evening, and though seeing these legendary, sell-proclaimed ‘Gods’ of Rap so late in their careers might not be ideal, it only showed that if anyone can get away with calling themselves the Gods of Rap, these three groups might very well be the strongest contenders for the title.

De La Soul setlist
Not available

Public Enemy setlist
1. My Uzi Weighs a Ton
2. Louder Than a Bomb
3. I Shall Not Be Moved
4. Can’t Truss It
5. Don’t Believe the Hype
6. Rebel Without a Pause
7. Timebomb
8. Anti-Nigger Machine
9. He Got Game
10. Fight the Power
11. Welcome to the Terrordome
12. Bring the Noise
13. Shut ‘Em Down
14. Black Steel
15. Public Enemy No. 1
16. Harder Than You Think 

Wu-Tang Clan setlist
1. Bring Da Ruckus
2. Shame on a Nigga
3. Killa Bees on the Swarm
4. Clan in Da Front
5. Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber
6. Winter Wars (Ghostface Killah song)
7. Can It Be All So Simple
8. Da Mystery of Chessboxin’
9. Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing ta F’ Wit
10. C.R.E.A.M.
11. Tearz
12. Protect Ya Neck
13. Come Together (The Beatles cover)
14. Reunited
15. Duel of the Iron Mic
16. Mary Jane (Rick James cover)
17. Ice Cream (Raekwon song)
18. 4th Chamber (GZA/Genius song)
19. Severe Punishment
20. Glaciers of Ice (Raekwon song)
21. Black Jesus (Ghostface Killah song)
22. ’97 Mentality (Cappadonna song)
23. Love Rap
24. Mathematics Set
25. Mighty Healthy (Ghostface Killah song)
26. The Mexican (GZA/Genius song)
27. ODB Tribute
28. Shimmy Shimmy Ya (Ol’ Dirty Bastard song)
29. Got Your Money (Ol’ Dirty Bastard song)
30. Duel to the Death
31. Triumph
32. Gravel Pit
33. Method Man