The Raconteur, the sleep, the scratches on Will Sheff’s guitar and my Okkervil River Song

Live Review

Written By Michael Wood Friday, November 7th, 2008

Okkervil River at Academy 3, Manchester

The stage of Manchester's Academy 3 is too small for Okkervil River.

For sure the six Americans fill the stage - a couple of them make up for the brawn lost in the slighter members - and for sure the multi-instrumental nature that sees guys playing keyboard them swapping to guitar and girls playing anything with strings on it adds clutter but this band are barely able to be contained by such small surroundings.

Okkervil River's singer/songwriter Will Sheff - resplendent in cheap funeral suit and a shocked mop of dark hair picked out against the stage lights - has the kind of charisma that one finds in a Morrissey or a Michael Stipe.

Will Sheff of Okkervil River

Sheff kicks his band into Plus Ones with the same faltering, ethereal way Stipe had around the time of R.E.M.'s fifth release Document. Comparisons are justified but the band's effort - Pop Lie - suggests they have been noted as does second effort of the night Singer/Songwriter.

Honesty is all here - The liar who lies in his song/And you're lying when you sing along - and Sheff exudes it.

The band's weight of back catalogue inspires devotees and so the songs familiar to most - new release The Stand Ins is their fifth - but are imbued with a freshness from phrasing and playfulness that rebirths every one.

Sheff has the air of practised raconteur telling a new story for the first time. Breathlessly, almost struggling to keep order of his thought as they spill into his songs, he brings a relevance and significance to his performance that fills every word, every line, with life.

No Key, No Plan - a hidden gem on Black Sheep Boy Appendix - which is rattled through with exuberance to the refrain Truly, I don’t think you'll find a happier man giving way to the jaw dropping moment of this gig. The stand out moment of any gig for this reviewer.

A Stone is stripped down to a three piece lament which in turn breaks down to Sheff himself, on stage, cast against white back light finishing off first with guitar and then just a voice. I think that I know the bitter dismay of a lover who brought/fresh brouquets every day/when she turned him away/to remember some knave/who once gave/just one rose [silence, pause] one day [silence, pause] and it was years ago

The sound could have been a pin dropping. A heart breaking. A million gigs colliding together into a single moment of perfection.

Then you see the bulbous eyes that Sheff casts over the room pushed out and puffed from crying too many tears. You see the scratches on Sheff's guitar where the pick has dragged on the upstroke in frantisism, in the need to play these songs right now, in the fact that he, that Okkervil River, really mean it.

They mean the intelligence as well as the emotion. They mean the smart and the heart. These are the things that make them exceptional.

That tattered acoustic guitar of Sheff is thrashed through an anthemic version of For Real and a mesmerised audience are wrapped and as requested clap in speedy time, then slower during Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe which for many gigs should be, would be the highlight.

Not tonight though. Tonight Okkervil River are a many facetted band. Lost Coastlines' banjo beginning and second singing by bassist Patrick Pestorius hits as close to perfection as any band gets

John Allen Smith Sails's Sloop John B close is the most exciting thing you've ever seen as it unfurls before you. In Starry Stairs they are playful cutting down sound to allow tape recording of Shannon Wilsey's voice haunting the room. No bookend with Savannah Smiles is the closest to a criticism I can manage.

Okkervil River on stage

Too quickly the night starts to end. They leave returning for a mellow, heartfelt, touching Girl In Port that seals the evening breathing in the life, the understanding, the reason why people still play live after the intention of the phonograph. Sheff bleeds the lines I'm a weak and lonely sort/but I'm not sailing just for sport/.../these several year out on the sea/left me empty cold and grey/pour yourself into me.

They close with their Okkervil River Song. They could be anything this band - and a new lexicon is needed to describe how good they were tonight - but they will never be so on the cusp again.

Commercially, creatively, critically anything is possible with wells of song writing and performance this deep.

Okkervil River are the stand out live act of this decade. Wow.

Written By Michael Wood Friday, November 7th, 2008

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2 Responses to “The Raconteur, the sleep, the scratches on Will Sheff’s guitar and my Okkervil River Song”

  1. Gaz Says:

    Im with uk alt band colobos and have graced the very same stage as the Okkervil boys didi tonite.

    This is my 6th time seeing the boys and have seen the many changes in the line up.they were as ever great and never cease to amaze me.
    Im still trying to solve the mystery of john meiburg and Wills separation or am i just fantasizing that there is a i feel tension between the i met with meiburg a few weeks early at the roadhouse in manchester.
    any way what a great show.

  2. suzanne Says:

    Great review of a show I had originally planned to attend (traveling from Austin, Texas). There is no mystery surrounding Jonathan Meiburg’s departure from Okkervil…Jonathan’s main band, Shearwater has also found more mainstream success, so he left to concentrate on Shearwater (check them out if you haven’t, they are awesome). At Okkervil’s show at Emo’s in Austin recently, both Brian Cassidy and Jonathan joined them on stage for a rousing rendition of “Lost Coastlines.” It was so wonderful as I had completely missed both Brian and Jonathan with Okkervil, being a recent fan.



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