Bright Eyes @ The Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 7th August 2003

The last time Bright Eyes played London, at ULU ten months ago, they had an oboe, a cellist, atmospherics and two drummers. Atop this musical bucking bronco, Conor Oberst fashioned a show of extraordinary delicate beauty. Like all great live music, it was at once breathtakingly big and terrifyingly small. Backing vocalists and complex orchestration allowed him to dissolve his extraordinary personality into a single volatile whole, before returning for an encore which saw him alone on a dark stage, barely touching his guitar and whispering his songs to a mesmerised audience.

The ULU show was booked before the chic success of 'Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground' removed Oberst from the small venues and basement clubs that have informed his song writing for the past decade. That the album has become the ultimate accessory for the self consciously 'Indie' is all too clear tonight, as is the fact that Bright Eyes - however good they may be - are wholly unsuited for mainstream success.

Looking back, a few seconds define the evening, and tellingly, theyíre not even from the main show. When the supporting British Sea Power arrive onstage, three different people are to be heard in the audience asking 'Which one is Conor Oberst?' They go giddy for the hype-deranged fools - and their bloody twigs - only to be left looking rather surprised, and noticeably less enthusiastic, when the real Bright Eyes arrives on stage. Having got all worked up, they talk loudly through the main set, to the extent that Oberst has to ask them to shut up. They donít. These people donít like music, they like being heard to talk about it. ďHeís so cute,Ē says one gum-chewing Camden-whore to another, ďI wonder if heís a junkie. Probably does pills,Ē he replies happily. Here is the musician as doll. Oberst as Ken to Karen Oís Barbie.

Admittedly, that the audience generally were not converted is not entirely their own ignorant fault. For a start, the sound quality is deeply suspect throughout, with the lyrics form which the songs derive their power buried so deep in the mix as to be indistinguishable. Those struggling to hear the band through the gabble of public chit chat are left with only vague mutterings and volume/tempo changes to suggest verse and chorus structures. It is probably significant, too, that the band is much stripped down. There are six onstage tonight, opposed to ULUís fourteen, and the disadvantages in depth and power of arrangement are immediately obvious. Finally, Oberst plays almost exclusively new material, with only two selections from Lifted, the record most tonight will know.

In times past, a Bright Eyes audience would expect, if not demand, such brutal selection from their notoriously prolific leader. In a club, the fragile new songs could be handed down form the stage successfully - indeed, unheard songs only notched up Oberstís magnetism. Tonight, faced with a blank crowd, and unflatteringly exposed in a large, balconied venue, the band seem unable to draw sufficient interest from the room. It is not as if the new songs are bad, but that the things around which Bright Eyes has been built - strong lyrics, mercurial stage presence, intimacy - stand no chance in the crazy mainstream world. The songs come, but, for all that Poison Oak and a reworked Lover I donít Have to Love are impressive, they largely leave unnoticed. Oberstís famous charisma is off tonight, and he is left violently strumming his guitar, in apparent attempt to encourage the crowd by example. Itís hard, bewitching a crowd when thereís a lit sign for Carling twenty feet from your head.

It is, in short, disappointing. It doesnít work. One remembers Ryan Adams, who not so long ago was threatening us with two new albums and a box set to be released in a single year. The work which made Adams the media darling he once was - slightly gothic, aching country- led to inappropriate success, fleeting cool, a shift to commercial rock, and the grim slide into AOR. Similarly prolific, Bright Eyes released three albums and an EP last year, and another LP is due early 2004. Adams, caught between the demands of new fans and his own sense of the music he is meant to make, has been silent since 2001. We can hope that Oberst wont suffer similar collapse, but on this evidence, a break from fashion and a return to his strengths is urgently required. Still, when he invites Har Mar Superstar onstage to light his cigarette, Oberst hardly suggests heís in a hurry to do that.

Luke Ingram