Okkervil River Top an Exceptional Line-Up at The Bluebird Theater, 06/15/11

The sweaty lump of a man picked himself up off the floor and stumbled to the front of the stage, hovering over the congregation below ‘I know it’s a lie, but I still give my love’.  This man was a killer. Having just bludgeoned his guitar to death after confessing his part in the murder of a teenage girl from Kenwood Christian, he left us to question the fate of the geeky, vest-wearing, spectacled Will Sheff who opened the show with a warning.  A warning of liars who lie in pop songs.  A warning as to the fate of those who sing along.  A warning greeted with cheers as loud and passionate as the rejection of the idea.  The reaction serving as an affirmation that we all knew what we were in for. ‘Lie to us pop star! We are your willing accomplices!’

The 6-piece from Austin, TX took the stage like every other band I’ve seen at The Bluebird. The lights went down and one by one they entered stage left.  A version of Obie PhillisHe’s Got the Whole World in His Hands led the introduction before we were treated to Wake and Be Fine from their latest album, I Am Very Far.  The song served as a good warm up and put to bed any doubts that Okkervil’s sound would be a downer after the pure energy that is Titus AndronicusPop Lie came next and all the liars were singing along while Sheff, still wearing glasses and a vest with a button-down, fought with the sound guys via hand signals.  For some reason the vocals have been off at the Bluebird lately and anyone who knows Okkervil River knows how important the vocals are.  Sheff was working with dual microphones and the reverb mic was much louder than the primary.  Luckily, after a busted guitar string and few tweaks, the mix was right and the set continued through The Latest Toughs and a ‘keyboard-shredding’ Rider without losing the slightest bit of momentum.

The transformation began with A Girl in Port.  The band distanced themselves from the storyteller, seemingly frightened of the protagonist who you could almost believe when he claimed ‘I’m not the lady-killing sort’, but you couldn’t help but wonder. With nothing but a horn as backup, this song really showcased Sheff’s voice and the sound-guys got it right this time…a real highlight of the night.  Piratess continued the homicidal theme; murder to a pop beat.  A few hundred bobbing heads, moving to the rhythm of the murderess and her victims.  White Shadow Waltz was even creepier live than it is on the album, locking you in a room full of tweakers while Cully Symington cracks away at his drums like he’s trying to break his way out of hell.  It was one of those songs that holds on and won’t let you go and you don’t realize you have held your breath for five minutes until it ends.  We got a quick, collective breath while Sheff removed his glasses before kicking the door down with the most hardcore song yet, The Valley.  Gunshots to the back of heads, slit throats, piling the bodies of the rock and roll dead….

It was during The Valley that I had to reflect back on the last time I saw Okkervil River in a small venue, back at The Independent in ’07.  They had changed considerably since then. First off, they are extremely tight now.  They are extremely confident.  This is a serious band.  The humor that existed back in San Francisco was no longer felt.  Changing lyrics around to include every Jeff Goldblum movie is not something that would be happening in 2011.  But the absence of  humor does not equate to the absence joy.  The lyrical content might be some deep, dark shit, but the music compliments it in a way that allows us to sing and dance as John Berryman’s last few seconds of life are stretched across a five minute song.  The acoustic version of A Stone reminded me of the first time I heard Black Sheep Boy, when I bought the vinyl and I expected a free razor blade to fall out.  If there were those in the audience contemplating following in Tim Hardin’s footsteps (and needle tracks) after So Come Back, I Am Waiting, they were brought back from the brink with Your Past Life as a Blast.

It was during this highlight from the new album that Lauren Gurgiolo blew me away.  A little thing in a white skirt and black cowboy boots, she hid behind her curls all night, but during Your Past Life as a Blast she absolutely stole the stage.  For a good portion of the night I couldn’t stop watching the blur of her fingers on her guitar.  Sheff must have noticed it was her time to shine as well, because after the failed attempt at a For Real sing-along, his attention was focused on her as well.

Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe was the closest thing to a hit song in a main set that ended with Lost Coastlines, one of only two tracks that made the cut from The Stand Ins.

The other Will, the one without glasses, the sweaty rockstar in a v-neck t-shirt, took the stage a few minutes later with The Rise before the teenage murder story of Westfall.  Surprised and proud at how many old-school fans were in attendance, the sing-along that failed with For Real spontaneously rose from the crowd with ‘evil don’t look like anything!’  Singing and dancing to teenage murder.  Applauding the complete lack of remorse.  Only a band like Okkervil River could command this kind of response…and why the hell not, it’s all of bunch of lies, right?  Right?  There would be no definitive answer to that question, but like true professionals they ended the night right, with the Unless It’s Kicks (man), the song we had forgot we were waiting for. Positioned at the end, the song limited the band’s liability for anything that happened later in the night ‘no officer, last time I saw them they were all smiling and dancing and having a great time’.

Titus Andronicus did a great job warming things up with their historical brand of punk rock.  There were many (myself included) that questioned Okkervil’s ability to follow this energetic band that had headlined The Bluebird just last year, but plauged with sound problems and vocals buried in the mix, the set proved to be a lot of fun but didn’t live up to their proven abilities.

Julianna Barwick had replaced Future Islands on this tour just a couple days eariler.  An odd replacement, Barwick’s one-woman choir proved to be interesting for a short period of time. I am a huge fan of her ‘vocal-loop experiment’ The Magic Place, but witnessing it live did not add anything to the experience.  Enjoyable for about 20 minutes, I think she lost her audience for the last couple songs.

Titus Andronicus Setlist:
A More Perfect Union
Richard II
No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future
The Battle of Hampton Roads
Titus Andronicus Forever
Four Score and Seven

Okkervil River Setlist: (click links for video)
Wake and Be Fine
Pop Lie
The Latest Toughs
Rider
A Girl In Port
Piratess
White Shadow Waltz
The Valley
John Allyn Smith Sails
A Stone (acoustic)
So Come Back, I Am Waiting
Your Past Life as a Blast
For Real
Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe
Lost Coastlines

The Rise
Westfall
Unless It’s Kicks