Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley

Mike Mantin 09/03/2005

Conor Oberst is playing sizeable old-fashioned concert halls over in his native America, but he's only known by hipsters and indie/emo kids (who mainly comprise the audience tonight) over here, which satisfyingly means that he's still spreading his alt-country love in cosy little clubs like Portsmouth's Wedgewood Rooms, though probably not for long. He's joined by Rilo Kiley (****), who try their hardest to upstage tonight's headlining heartthrob and go down a treat. It's not hard to see why. Firstly, the presence of lovely singer Jenny Lewis makes every confused indie kid in the packed crowd confirm their heterosexuality. But, of course, the main reason is because they play sleek and finely-crafted pop music. With three guitarists and a trumpeter, their sound is far more rich than their lo-fi days of yore, and most songs are taken from their recent major-label effort, More Adventurous.

'Portions For Foxes', which has already been on The O.C., is a sexy, fast-paced power-pop number, while ballads 'Does He Love You?' and 'More Adventurous' carry a hint of country. The Niles Crane-lookalike guitarist has a successful go at singing on 'Ripchord' and thankfully, little of the Shania Twain-esque filler on the album is aired. They walk off as the converted rush off to find the bespectacled mailing list kid and sign up.

Bright Eyes (**** ˝) are introduced in yet another form tonight, with organs, guitars and that weird instrument that makes exclusively country noises. Conor is jetlagged and unshaven, but the swooning girls at the front don't care one bit. Besides, though he's clearly knocked back a few in the poky Wedgewood bar, he sings and plays as beautifully as ever. Tonight's set is culled mainly from recent, ultra-praised album 'I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning' plus a few unexpected oldies. The 'Times They Are A-Changin''-style (that's the only 'new Dylan' reference, I promise!) political call-to-arms 'At The Bottom Of Everything' opens the set, wisely losing the boring monologue that precedes it on the album. There's no Jim James (the backing vocalist and singer in My Morning Jacket) but the song is utterly potent, with Oberst's voice simultaneously piercing and soothing.

Conor is undoubtedly the star tonight. The band stand utterly still as he croons, and every audience member's stare is fixated on him. This is why 'Lua' is so effective. With only an acoustic guitar and a couple of hundred stunned punters for company, he delivers a moving and passionate vocal performance of a song that he's no doubt sick of (it was a number 1 hit in America). The crowd break their perfect silence with ear-splitting applause. The same happens with the rest of tonight's many highlights, including 'We Are Nowhere And It's Now' (gorgeous, even without Emmylou Harris) and 'Road To Joy' (cheekily described as “a double A-side with Beethoven”).

Bizarrely, Conor doesn't bother playing his latest single 'First Day Of My Life', the pluggage of which is surely the reason he's here tonight. There's also nothing from 2002's classic 'Lifted…'. Nobody minds, though. They've just witnessed a real star in the making, a singer-songwriter with wit and attitude to compliment the whine