Better Oblivion Community Center @ The Ritz, Manchester, 12 May
Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers bring a spirited live iteration of their Better Oblivion Community Center album to Manchester
This is not, technically, Better Oblivion Community Center’s debut Manchester show. Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers have only been operating under the moniker since January, when they surprise-released their eponymous full-length, but the seeds of their collaboration were already very much in the sowing back in February of 2017, when Bridgers supported Oberst at his solo show up the road at the Albert Hall in support of his sparse recent-career standout, Ruminations.
Bridgers joined her now-bandmate to provide backing vocals on Lua and, given that Oberst has always collaborated widely and that Bridgers is far from the only friend of his to help him out in that kind of fashion, you wonder what it was about her that convinced him that a more substantial collaboration would bear real fruit. On tonight’s evidence, the reasons are twofold. The first is that their voices go gorgeously together; the harmonies meld handsomely in a manner that suggests a real intuitive understanding of each other’s voices. The second is that they clearly enjoy each other’s company, and the record’s tongue-in-cheek concept arc – following happenings at a dystopian wellness centre – are reflected in their light-hearted onstage interaction.
That, in places, makes for a slightly awkward disconnect between the songs and the atmosphere. The former are heart-rending in places – see the achingly sad Service Road, potentially about Oberst’s late brother who succumbed to long-term alcohol abuse a couple of years back, or Would You Rather, the pair’s first studio collaboration from Bridgers’ stellar Stranger in the Alps LP. On paper, it's is a back-and-forth not between herself and Oberst, but herself and her own brother, in reaction to their absent father.
Elsewhere, there’s moments that are less intense. The freewheeling Dylan Thomas is irresistibly fun, and when we hit the encore, they each take lead vocals on the other’s own tracks. That means we get a weirdly loose Scott Street and a powerful Funeral from Oberst, and from Bridgers, a chaotic, aggressive take on the Bright Eyes classic Easy/Lucky/Free. It’s a smart move and underlines the sense of Better Oblivion Community Center as a thoroughly diverting distraction for the two of them, but it also reminds you just how good a run the pair are on as individuals at the minute, too.
If this project has served as a palate cleanser as much as it appears to have done, then career bests for both may well lay ahead once they return to their proverbial day jobs.