ConcertHop: Okkervil River
Written by Bwog Staff
Working its way up from the Warehouse in Winston-Salem to Webster Hall, Okkervil River has cemented its place among the best in hyper-literate indie rock. Bwog correspondent Max Friedman chronicles his personal journey with Okkervil River.
When I first saw Okkervil River play, four years ago, it was at a small, artsy venue in my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, just after the release of their then new album, Black Sheep Boy. Having just happened upon their music, I was excited to see them, as were a few of my friends, but it seemed, at least in my town, that we were more or less the only ones. There were only about thirty people at the show, and half of them were sitting through the entire set.
This is not to say that the band was dull; they were, in fact, electric, and they succeeded in turning me from new listener into a devoted follower. They simply had not achieved enough recognition among the jaded concertgoers and self-styled musicians of the area to warrant their enthusiasm. When my friends and I spoke to Scott Brackett, the trumpeter and keyboardist, after the show, however, he said that he thought the band was getting steadily better, musically and lyrically, and, though he did was too modest to say it, he seemed to believe that greater popularity was in their future.
Friday night, as I forced my way through the crowd at a packed Webster Hall, I realized that Okkervil River had achieved actual stardom, and that Will Sheff, the band’s singer and front man, who had previously performed with an understated enthusiasm, pressing his words into the microphone, had become a legitimate rock star. He danced around the stage, dragging the mic stand with him, punctuating his guitar solos with ecstatic leaps from the drum platform. My favorite moment came when he slowly undid his tie while crooning to the audience during a slower number. The crowd loved him, and he knew it and loved us right back, in a way that perhaps only someone who has recently come to his fame can.
Popularity came in the months after I first saw them perform, as Black Sheep Boy’s intelligent, sensitive lyrics and entertaining blend of country and rock music made fans of thousands of casual listeners. A sense of restlessness of spirit and hopelessness in love are portrayed in the album in a manner both thoughtful and original. Despite his newfound fame, however, even on the newest album, The Stage Names, Sheff still makes claims to unassuming modesty, as in the song “A Girl in Port,” in which he asserts that he is “not the lady-killing sort,” a declaration that was more than a little bit subverted by the pair of panties that flew from the balcony to his feet at the song’s conclusion. Sheff seemed flattered but unruffled, thanking the anonymous woman for the gesture and assuring her that her gift would undoubtedly come in handy later on the tour.
The transition that I have seen in the demeanor of Sheff and of the band as a whole is equally noticeable in the music itself. Though the band continues to make excellent use of country-influenced instruments like the pedal steel guitar, the tone of their newer album, and of this concert, seems to mark a shift away from country toward unequivocal rock, a change that would be sad if the new music were not so buoyantly wonderful (though the lyrics remain remarkably smart). Many of the highlights of the show came when they played their newer songs, like “Unless It’s Kicks” and “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe,” during the middle of which the song dissolved into a chaos of keyboard and noise reminiscent of the best of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, before falling back into itself for a jubilant conclusion. For me, however, the very best songs were of night were the revamped versions of some of their older songs, which they have modified slightly from their original form to fit their newer sound, a move that is often disastrous, but which they pulled off seamlessly, actually succeeding in improving upon “For Real,” my favorite song on Black Sheep Boy. Likewise, “Westfall,” one of their earliest songs, with which they ended the night, was a triumph.
It is perhaps traditional for a critic to find some aspect of a performance, no matter how minute, to criticize, even in the midst of what would otherwise be considered a rave review. I cannot, however, find anything in Friday’s performance, or in Okkervil River itself that warrants even the slightest admonition. The concert was one of the best I have ever attended, and their newest album is basically flawless, even if, as my more musically astute friends assure me, the song structures are not particularly complex. The music is fun, powerful, and often moving. Go out and buy The Stage Names (or stream it all here).