Monday, November 21, 2011


This evening's support A Classic Education are an interesting proposition: displaced Vancouverite living in Bolgona fronts Italian indie-pop band. As cosmopolitan as their nationalities, the band’s sounds is a weaving together of summery sixties-leaning dream-pop with a hefty, rockin’ rhythm section - and then live interspersed with film dialogue and a range of stuffed and ornamental animals onstage (the jaguar is called Sonny apparently). Very easy on the ear but occasionally on this first date too much so to be instantly memorable – we must spend more time getting to know each other.

In his interview earlier this year for Drowned In Sound, Will Sheff couldn’t remember how many people had played on the new Okkervil River record: “Oh man. Ummm…40? Something like that, maybe? I’m really bad with numbers – I’m like a mother bird who can’t count all the babies in the nest”. When it comes to touring “I Am Very Far” however Sheff and co stick with the six-person line-up (with new multi-instrumentalist Michael St Clair) that has served all their recent album tours. And although this year’s release may have had more players, it follows the steady progression of scope and ambition from previous releases for their finely crafted, literate indie-rock ‘n’ rock.

Tonight at Sound Control the band open with a fierce statement of intent: ‘The Valley’ is as epic and monumental as on record (I can’t listen to it without thinking about this review and its reference to the ‘gated snare’) but coupling it with earlier songs like ‘For Real’ and ‘Black’ show how similar in power and feel they are. For a band that largely stick to their key instruments – drums, keys, bass and two guitars – it still surprises me how much variety Okkervil River can wring out of Sheff’s song-writing even with Michael St Clair working so hard at the rear of the stage (look he’s playing a trombone! Now the cornet! Next the violin!).

There is banter about Nas-endorsed milkshakes, repeating “granddad stories” about playing their first Manchester gig at The Star and Garter and a brief Steely Dan interlude but mainly the band are about delivering those songs with a mixture of concentration and fervour, precision and passion. And as finely crafted as the songs is tonight’s set-list as the band traverse the new record and back catalogue in a carefully flowing sweep - high energy opening salvo, more reflective mid-tempo numbers, the acoustic interlude, singalong sections and ballads into the dual song finale an epic (that word again) combination of ‘Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe’ and ‘Lost Coastlines’.

Tonight it struck me that Sheff, overgrown straggly hair, thick beard and thick-rimmed glasses, could be mistaken for a younger version of a latter-day Jarvis Cocker. And he certainly inspires the same fan-reverence if more as an arty, askance story-teller than a champion of the misfit. The final two encores simply cement the affection and ardour of the crowd. For some bands the studio is their province, for others it is the live circuit. Okkervil River manage to span both – intricate and expansive records (their back catalogue feels much more extensive than six studio albums) with exceptional and passionate live performances never diminished or fatigued apparently by their near-constant touring. Essential listening. Essential viewing.

The Set List:

The Valley
For Real
Song Of Our So-Called Friend
Wake And Be Fine
White Shadow Waltz
We Need A Myth
No Key, No Plan (acoustic)
So Come Back, I Am Waiting
John Allyn Smith Sails
Your Past Live As A Blast
Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe
Lost Coastlines
It Ends With A Fall
Unless It Kicks

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