Review By Courtney Pitman, Photos By Ryan Kelly
Everything about Okkervil River screams, “These guys are absolute pros,” except without actually screaming it, because that would be far too ostentatious for Will Sheff and co. Rather, their effect is more of a firm statement of confident efficiency, confirmed by every aspect of their simple but competent presentation, polished but scruffy sound, and composed but animated charisma.
The indie-rock outfit arrived at the 9:30 Club on Monday night touring in support of their eighth album, The Silver Gymnasium, a highly conceptual work set in the 1980’s in frontman Will Sheff’s small New Hampshire hometown, Meriden. This theme is reflected in the band’s set design: the drum kit features New Hampshire’s state seal (I bet you’ve never seen New Hampshire’s state seal), and the backdrop is a sketched map of the town, projecting an appropriate air of quaint nostalgia. If these touches aren’t particularly awe-inspiring compared to, say, Alt-J’s light show bonanza last week, it’s because they mesh so well with Okkervil’s production that they complement the performance without distracting from the music.
Which is a good thing, because the music is magnificent. Okkervil tends to focus on morbid themes; then sets them to upbeat anthemic instrumentation with Sheff layering verbose, witty and often poetic verses on top. The resulting songs take multiple listens to even begin to unpack, demanding a handful each to identify the lyrics, dissect their meaning (likely relating to narrative themes of growing up, metaphorical meanings of life or death), and fold those first two items within the context of their sound.
Okkervil had six people on stage on Monday to create this construct for the 9:30 audience, with a seventh guy adding an extra guitar at a few moments. Though the songs are generally guitar and Sheff-driven, the multi-instrumentalist, ever my favorite member of any band, handled a guitar, trumpet, trombone, electric violin, maracas, tambourines and other shaker-like equipment while also manning the synth knobs. The result was a packed set that moved quickly and showcased an incredibly talented band that needed no time to warm up. Leading with Gymnasium highlight “It Was My Season,” they made the jump to light speed on the following two songs, allowing for some impressive guitar work by the Slash-channeling Lauren Gurgiolo on “On a Balcony” and eliciting hysterics from the die-hard crowd on “Black” off Black Sheep Boy.
The upbeat morbidity construct was perhaps best exemplified at the 9:30 Club by the song “John Allyn Smith Sails,” which is an imagined first-person narrative by confessional poetry trailblazer John Berryman. The melancholy beginning sets the stage for the tale:
By the second verse, dear friends / My head will burst, my life will end / So I’d like to start this one off by saying, “Live and love”
But it doesn’t just detail Berryman’s well-documented unhappiness and eventual suicide in angular terms, it turns his life into a metaphorical hellish boat ride towards its finale, complete with smartass quips during his jump from the Washington Avenue Bridge. After the first verse it picks up into fuller instrumentation, and then transitions into a deliberate march before exploding into the raucous boat ride, declaring, “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.” It’s brilliant.
Other highlights from the set were the first set closing combo of the precocious “Our Life Is Not A Movie or Maybe” complete with participatory clapping antics and the soaring “Lost Coastlines,” during which Will Sheff effectively validates our 20-something quarter life crisis. Similarly, “Down Down the Deep River” told us that ‘it’s not alright / it’s not even close to alright’ and the slowdown for “Red,” which Sheff performed solo, was a touching moment of quietness during an evening of triumphantly morose dancing/singing/shouting.
Bottom line: Okkervil River was great. Everyone loves Will Sheff. Now, go read up on John Berryman.
It Was My Season
On a Balcony
John Allyn Smith Sails
Lido Pier Suicide Car
Red (acoustic solo)
Where the Spirit Left Us
Down Down The Deep River
Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe
Walking Without Frankie
A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene
Unless It’s Kicks