Okkervil River the masters of invention

Live Review

Written By Michael Wood Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Okkervil River at Academy 2, Manchester

Three things you can count on:

In Manchester it will rain. This is the first thing and sounds like a tired cliche but is true and this afternoon the rain has been heavy, filling the drains and bringing about a sewer smell to pervade the city and fill the lowest floor of what Will Sheff will call a "four level music processing facility."

You can count on Red High Tops too - this is the second thing - and I broke out a new pair for the wander up Oxford Road to the gig and although it is over twenty years since I first wandered to a gig in Converse. Chuck Taylor, Eddy Current, McCarthy's Larry. They are - or were - Americana.

Crawling out of Americana come Okkervil River. Okkervil River are a third thing you can count on. Will Sheff and his band are an unremittingly excellent collective in all they do. Five albums of intelligent, articulate and fascinating music and a string of live shows that take those songs further than one could have thought.

My definition of a good live performance is that a performer is able to take a song heard hundreds of times and breathe a new life into it, change intonations on lines to tweak context, alter the focus of narratives by dropping or raising vocal sections, embowering surprising and effective emotional layers onto what is already familiar. A good gig sees this happen three or four times. Okkervil River deliver such near magic dozens in occasions measured in dozens.

The band play a very similar set to the last time they played in this venue and while Sheff has not a beard and bassist Patrick Pestorius has shaved his off they look much the same as they did ten months ago. The acoustic guitar that Sheff strikes often and hard, throwing over his back on a well worn strap, is the same well scratched piece which played here last year.

Not reinvention then but rather invention. Invention coming in a performance that never goes beyond the remit of being a rock 'n roll show but rather celebrates the form.

Will Sheff uses a rich understanding of the rock n' roll performance to pull off all the tricks he can to beguile and audience that shows gig experience through it's part greying hair.

He drops to speech leading the audience back to "pause and add your own intentions/right here". He slows a song down to near still lingering over "just one rose/one day/and that was years ago." which cuts a swathe of silence through those collected here tonight in a genuine and affecting way.

Affecting too is the unsettling undertone underlying the Okkervil River catalogue and Sheff's battle torn lover is replaced by a seething menace who "thirsts for real blood/for real cuts..." stalking the centre of attention making you complicit in his crimes.

The beat of "a bad movie/where there is no crying" is pattered out in hand claps while "we sail out/on orders from him..." is intoned by Pestorius stepping out from bassist shadow to share Sheff's stage.

It is Sheff's stage though and he takes it for encore picking his beat up guitar and returns as the devastated lover "to cheat/on Maine Island" slowly, delicately, setting his voice against the embers of the evening.

Ultimately though Sheff lifts the mask a final time concluding the encore out at Westfall with easy murder and examination. Playfully he begs to be examined, to see if you can see the truth in his performance, see the legion in his swollen eyes. "Evil don't look like anything" he finalises daring you to carry on an investigation of what this occurrence, to analyse.

New insights gleaned, the night relies on that.

Written By Michael Wood Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

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One Response to “Okkervil River the masters of invention”

  1. Ria Wood Says:

    Yes, it was certainly a gig worth venturing over the M62 for, as ever. I was a bit surprised that there wasn’t an airing of any new material – it’s been a year since the release of the last album and surely, perhaps they might have been inspired enough for the odd new track? I understand that they’ve just finished recording as the “backing band” for a new Roky Erickson album, and what with the touring of both Okkervil River and Shearwater to keep Sheff busy, perhaps there just hasn’t been the time. I do very much look forward to hearing where they might go next.

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