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

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