Friday, October 25, 2013

Okkervil River at The WIltern - October 20, 2013

(first published at Radio Free Silver Lake 10/23/13)

Every time I see Okkervil River I feel I've gotten to know Will Sheff a little better. The intensity and depth of his lyrics reveal so much about himself it makes his live concerts seem an act of bold daring by an artist unafraid of the fallout such revelations could incur. Only a few performers I've ever seen get away with this successfully. The show on Sunday night, October 19, was just such an occasion. The new album, The Silver Gymnasium, is the most blatantly autobiographical of all his releases, dealing specifically with his childhood in New Hampshire, and it made this performance cathartic for both the performer and the audience.

Sitting in a nearly empty Wiltern Theatre (I wanted to get into the pit so I got there before the door opened at 7) I was surprised there was nobody there yet. But then my thoughts on who should be popular and who actually is popular are almost never in sync. As a fan of Okkervil River for a while now, I'm always amazed all over again at just how compelling a band they are, and yet almost nobody I know follows them. It seems incredible.

Opening band was Matthew E. White (at left) from Virginia and, apart from some very enjoyable roots rock and roll with his five-piece band, flavored with some sonically explosive passages, I really enjoyed his between-song talk about how his East Coast prejudices about Los Angeles have come crashing down now that he's on his third trip to our sun-drenched shores. They've played The Troubadour, The Hollywood Bowl and now The Wiltern, and the warm enthusiasm of the audience seduced Matthew into revealing that he and his band have fallen under the spell of Southern California. I can relate, having overcome the same prejudices in myself, albeit over 30 years ago.

They appeared to genuinely enjoy playing their set and that enthusiasm transferred to the audience. The music was meticulously arranged for his talented band and covered a wide spectrum of styles, all highlighted by Matthew's strong and steady vocals. With his obvious talent for music arrangement, he has collaborated with some musicians I admire very much, like Sharon Van Etten and The Mountain Goats. Their 35 minute set was a definite crowd pleaser.

With a blast of orchestral music, the stage remained dark except for the blue glow of their illuminated backdrop until, a couple of minutes later, the seven members of Okkervil River strode onstage and launched into the first two songs off the new album, "It Was My Season" and "On a Balcony", these were exactly the songs I wanted to hear. Instead of continuing onto the album's third cut, "Down Down The Deep River"(which may be one of their greatest songs), they zapped back to the 2004 release, Black Sheep Boy for "Black" and "For Real" and invested those two numbers with a new passion and energy.

Beyond that the set list comprised a greatest hits package of some of their best songs. I thought it was all their best material until I went home and looked at the albums and realized there were over a dozen other great songs they didn't play. Among the highlights were the opening tracks off The Stage Names, "Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe" and I Am Very Far, ""The Valley". Standing still was not an option. Obvious was the adulation of some of their fans, as some of the older numbers instigated a couple of "shout-back-the-lyrics" moments, which don't tend to thrill me. I always prefer hearing the new material which fortunately the audience doesn't yet know well enough.

Will Sheff (left) writes some of the brainiest rock and roll around and wraps it up in extraordinary song craft surrounded by a bunch of gifted musicians and they deliver one knock out song after another. Among my favorites were a rousing version of "Rider", "Lido Pier Suicide Car", and the evocative."Stay Young". "No Key, No Plan" from the Black Sheep Boy extended album done acoustic, was a real highlight featuring some dynamic duet singing. It may be the most beautiful song I've heard live in a long while. (below)

When they did "Down Down The Deep River" the crowd went wild, it is such a catchy song with one of my favorite lyrics: "It's not alright, it's not even close to alright". This is my favorite song at the moment and it was a real thrill to hear it live. Like they know how good it is. The rest of the band of multi-instrumentalists, one guy plays trombone, trumpet, violin and guitar, left me stunned and so many of them sing that you realize their albums don't need to rely on any backing tracks. Very impressive! Okkervil River played for close to two hours and it was a perfectly rounded out set that has left me buzzing for days.

photos: Brad Roberts