It’s with some trepidation that I approach tonight’s show. Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, prior to recording latest record Away, dispensed with almost the entire band (drummer Cully Symington, formerly of Cursive, being the only survivor), and instead teamed up with jazz, folk, and classical musicians to record the bands 8th full-length. Not being the greatest fan of any of these genres, I was worried this might get ugly…
Toronto’s Rob Moir is up first, and with just an acoustic guitar, provides a great start to the show. Each song is accompanied by a witty anecdote or back story from experiences gained from hundreds of gigs across the world (hangovers, celebrating New Year, getting lost in a forest on a bicycle between Poland and Germany, the perks of free alcohol, to name but a few…), and he’s clearly a seasoned performer, not portraying an ounce of nerves despite playing to a half-empty room at this point. His voice is very strong too, reminding a lot of Anthony Raneri of Bayside (obscure late 2000’s reference there).
At 9:20pm, Okkervil River take the stage, and Will immediately implores the cool kids hiding in the “alcoves” of Théatre Fairmount to come to the front, as he promises that they always play better that way. The vast majority obliges, and the set opens with Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe, from 2007’s fantastic The Stage Names record. An upbeat guitar-driven song with an ultra-catchy hook, it’s the Okkervil River of old, and the crowd is immediately engaged. Will looks amazingly like John Lennon, the double bass player Ben Lazar Davis is clad in an Air Force jumpsuit, the stage and everything on it is draped in fake ivy…perhaps initial fears were misplaced. This looks like it’s gonna be fun!
The Industry, from current record Away, begins next, and is another upbeat song, complete with harmonies emanating from both sides of the stage, and is swiftly followed by Call Yourself Renee, a slower song, but with the same harmonies and a driving bass line from the double bass before the song slowly disintegrates, leaving the vocal harmonies alone in an almost acapella style, before finally ending altogether. Down Down The Deep River, from 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium comes next, impeccably delivered, before Will elects to “take it down to a more contemplative level” in the form of new song Mary On A Wave, which concludes with an excellent harmonica solo from keyboardist Sarah Pedinotti. The band then leaves the stage, leaving just Will and an acoustic guitar, and he runs through Pink Slips to a huge response from the crowd. The War Criminal Rises And Speaks then begins with just Will and his guitar on stage, before the rest of the band slowly join midway through to add to the song and lead it to an epic conclusion.
In introducing new song Comes Indiana Through The Smoke, Will describes how the song is based on his Grandfathers experiences onboard the USS Indiana in the Pacific during World War II (which I discuss at length with him after the show, much to the chagrin of the hipsters waiting for their photos with the frontman….oops). The song itself suddenly takes on a whole new life, with lyrics such as “And she steams out Casco Bay / Part of Task Force 58 / And the young men ‘board her all are brave and bold” a timely reminder of the countless sacrifices made, made all the more poignant now understanding from where these accounts came.
The mood lightens a little when, following this song, Will relates how he’d considered hiding a vaporizer he possessed when crossing the Canadian border today, eliciting various “oooohs” and “aaaahs” from the audience, knowing that this was not a great idea. Needless to say, he didn’t. Nonetheless, the sound guy repeatedly cuts the sound to Wills mic as if to prevent him from incriminating himself further, which draws laughs from band and crowd alike. Prior concerns for a self-indulgent Jazz/Folk/Classical show are a long way away by now!
Okkervil River R.I.P. and Judey On A Street from the new record are then followed by a song that initially sounds almost electro, with a strangely bleepy intro, before Will begins to sing the opening verse to the classic Unless Its Kicks, evidently re-worked since its initial release on The Stage Names album. The crowd immediately roars upon recognizing it, and as much as I hate remixes in general, this one sounded fantastic. The set concludes with So Come Back, I Am Waiting, from 2005’s Black Sheep Boy record, with Wills forceful delivery of the vocals offset by the soft harmonies from bassist Ben to create a very contrasting sound indeed. A great way to end the main set.
The crowd rapturously calls for more, and the band duly oblige with a 2-song encore of the bluesy She Would Look For Me and finally For Real, with both containing insanely intricate solo’s from lead guitarist Will Graefe, and the show ends on a triumphantly high note after around 95 minutes. Evidently, the change in personnel has not necessitated a change in the live experience; Okkervil River remain as engaging and mesmerizing as ever.
Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe
Call Yourself Renee
Down Down The Deep River
Mary On A Wave
The War Criminal Rises And Speaks
Comes Indiana Through The Smoke
Okkervil River R.I.P.
Judey On A Street
Unless It’s Kicks
So Come Back, I Am Waiting
She Would Look For Me
Review and photos – Simon WilliamsShare this :