Okkervil River - Shepherd's Bush Empire 11/11/08
Will Sheff isn’t wasting any time tonight. He introduces the first song but then directs his band towards blasting through a number of songs in quick succession without so much as a pause. He’s every bit as intense and melodramatic in performance as even a casual listen to Okkervil River’s dense, verbose, highly dramatic songs might suggest. He loosens his tie, flirts with the microphone and bursts on to the drum riser to have a fiery stare off with the drummer. Every gesture is exaggerated and overstated, to the extent that his genuine debt of gratitude to the audience could be misinterpreted as mocking insincerity.
It’s not exactly clear how Okkervil River now manage to fill out venues of the size and grandeur of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They haven’t exactly received vast amounts of column inches in the UK, although Uncut’s editor Allan Jones and his wife are visibly enjoying the show from a prime vantage point on the first level balcony. Perhaps it’s the Pitchfork effect (the band’s breakthrough album ‘Black Sheep Boy’ received a justifiably rapturous review from the influential taste-making website) or perhaps it’s simply good old fashioned word of mouth. I’m certainly surprised by the relative youth of the audience – one might expect this rather unhip and literary brand of songwriting to have a slightly older demographic.
Tonight’s performance isn’t perfect – but then Okkervil River is a band that depends on a kind of ragged glory for its impact. The vocal harmonies could do with a bit of work and there are times when Sheff’s lack of patience threatens to undermine the performance – he seems to begin singing ‘The Latest Toughs’ in a completely different key from the rest of the band. The nuances of the songs are also occasionally threatened by one of those drummers who seem to view drumming as method acting. He rarely plays anything particularly adventurous but still seems to make the basic act of keeping time look as physically demanding as running a marathon. He also has a very limited dynamic range – hard and loud to extremely hard and loud. There are times when the group look in danger of becoming a rather conventional soft rock ensemble, anchored by an occasionally leaden pace. It’s inevitable that a smaller working band would miss some of the lavish flourishes of their more ornate studio arrangements – but sometimes this level of bludgeoning is too extravagant.
Nevertheless, when Sheff is in full flight, he brings these extraordinary songs to vivid and cinematic life. He luxuriates in the spellbinding power of language, using each song to tell a story, sometimes pausing simply to linger on the pattern and flow of his words. Even songs which are based largely on an intellectual conceit (the opening ‘Plus Ones’ is based on a string of references to songs with numbers in their titles, adding an extra number to the original – ’97 Tears’, ‘The 51st way to leave your lover’, ‘8 Chinese Brothers’ etc) become something insightful and devastating in his hands. Best of all is his rare willingness to write from a female perspective (the astonishingly beautiful ‘Starry Stairs’ and ‘On Tour with Zykos’). There are some examples of women writing from a male vantage point (the excellent Sylvie Lewis springs immediately to mind), but fewer from the other way around. Sadly not performed tonight, the early Okkervil song ‘Red’ related the story of a female dance yearning for her separated daughter.
The set list is judiciously selected, with most of the key tracks from ‘The Stage Names’ and its more recent sequel ‘The Stand-Ins’ getting welcome airings (although the stellar ‘Calling and Not Calling My Ex’ is a notable omission). For me, though, the performance provided a timely reminder of just how excellent ‘Black Sheep Boy’ was, by comparison barely registering in this country. Sheff’s stripped back performance of ‘A Stone’ (during which he sadly has to command the audience to stop yacking) is supremely moving. The more aggressive ‘Black’ and ‘For Real’ (the latter notable for its visceral stop-start stabs from the band) pack a more muscular punch. Dipping into the back catalogue, Sheff also delivers the morally complex and remarkable ‘The War Criminal Rises and Speaks’ (‘Does the heart want to atone? Oh, I believe that it’s so, because if I could climb back through time I’d restore their lives and give back my own…’).
Sheff’s best songs alternate between an affecting melancholy and a rousing spirit of adventure. The very best ones combine the two, as on the wonderful ‘Lost Coastlines’, which uses seafaring metaphors to detail the perilous experience of being in a touring band. It’s one of the few such self-referential songs to manage to be moving in a much wider sense. It gives a strong sense of human relationships – the way being in a band, where everyone’s greatest passions, not to mention their finances, are at stake, can be unpredictable and dangerous, yet also thrilling. It’s a situation where the bonds of friendship can be severely tested but are most often repaired. It becomes a big audience singalong tonight. During the closing ‘Unless It’s Kicks’, Sheff has no shame in commanding the audience to raise their hands and clap with vigour. In fact, the show’s closing 20 minute stretch is as invigorating and uplifting as I’ve experienced this year.
Even better still is the encore. There’s the haunting, mesmerising ‘Girl In Port’, followed by two much earlier songs featuring two of Sheff’s most compelling narratives. ‘Okkervil River Song’ is about as keening and convincing a description of young lovers as I can remember, whilst ‘Westfall’, inspired by the Austin, Texas Yogurt Shop murders, talks of motiveless killing with dispassionate frankness. It ends with some chilling words: ‘Now, with all these cameras focused on my face you’d have thought they could see it through my skin/They’re looking for evil, thinking they can trace it, but evil don’t look like anything…’ It’s a strange choice of fan favourite.
Lyrically, Sheff is without doubt in the highest league. In fact, this seems to be a particularly exciting time for American alternative rock groups with literary imaginations – Iron and Wine, The Decemberists, The Mountain Goats – all share an unconventional and wordy writing style with OR.
Nick Golding remarked to me on the way home that the sound balance was unusually clear and carefully mixed. Whilst I sometimes struggled to hear Scott Bracken’s trumpet, it’s certainly true that Sheff’s voice came through booming with disarming clarity. It’s far too frequent a problem at gigs that so much reverb is applied to a lead singer’s voice that any attempt at enunciation is obscured. Mercifully, this was not the case tonight. Perhaps this made Sheff’s occasional pitching issues more conspicuous – but this is a small price to pay for being able to hear and understand his lucid, brave and highly original words.