Tuesday, November 8th, 2005

No Key, No Plan

Three weeks into Okkervil River’s first North American tour and they’ve surely already got more than enough stories to tide them over for a good long time. First Will Sheff got strep throat at the start of the tour, then last week Prefix pointed out this review which implied there was some drama on the home front was leaking into the show and to top it off, drummer Travis Nelsen fractured his hand last week and while soldiering through it, it was surely affecting his ability to play. But still, they (barely) made it to Toronto and I was still hoping to witness something momentous.

Support on this tour was labelmates Minus Story, who hail from the rock metropolis of Boonville, Missouri. But if history has proven anything, it’s that sometimes isolation can be an excellent impetus for art. Like their fellow heartlanders-turned-indie rockers The Flaming Lips, Minus Story trade in off-kilter, psychedelic pop but eschew the Lips’ sense of whimsy for a more tense, emotional tone. The one song Jagjaguar has posted for sampling purposes, “Little Wet Head” was a definite standout, and they definitely had an interesting sound – I might have been persuaded to buy a CD if Okkervil hadn’t taken all my spending money for the evening… If you’re curious, Cokemachineglow has an interview with the band.

In keeping with the concentrated chaos that seemed to have been following the band around, Okkervil arrived at Lee’s a little while after I did having been held up at the border. Thankfully, they all got through and with all their gear (and merch) so except for a bit of a delayed start, no harm no foul. A quick soundcheck segued straight into their set and for the next hour and a half, it was some serious magic going on up there. I’d gotten myself pretty worked up about this show in the last little while, but I can honestly say that the reality of it was no letdown whatsoever. Led by Will Sheff’s wonderfully hoarse and ragged holler, the six-piece band ran through selections from across their entire repetoire and wonderfully so. High points included a beautiful “The War Criminal Stands And Speaks”, a rousing “Black” and a version of “For Real” that could go down as one of the best live performances I’ve seen of anything, anywhere.

Sheff seemed genuinely thrilled about the turnout for his band’s Toronto debut, and there was a surprisingly large turnout for a Monday night – good to see (I hope that the free ticket I left at the door for someone, anyone, actually got put to use). He was a riveting frontman, attacking his guitar one minute, gently caressing the next, all while singing his wonderfully emotive lyrics and bounding around the stage like his life depended on it. The rest of the band was also superb, pulling out keyboards, pedal steel, guitars or trumpets whenever called for, and for not having had a proper soundcheck, the mix really sounded terrific. And a special shout out to Nelsen – you’d never guess from his playing that he was nursing a broken wrist. Injuries or no, the man came to play. Hell, they all did, and they delivered one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.

I mentioned that I left the merch table with my wallet a good deal lighter – I got Black Sheep Boy and Black Sheep Boy Appendix on LP, the first Okkervil CD and a t-shirt. And a pin. Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve bought any band merch at all, Okkervil just happens to be the recipient of my largesse. And of course, les photos.

Hey, Thomas Haden Church on the set of Spider-Man 3nice shirt. As the item says, that pretty much nails down which villain Lowell is playing in the new flick. Now all we need is a pic of Topher Grace covered in black ectoplasm and we’re all set.

So I was asked what I thought about The West Wing‘s live debate episode on Sunday night. In a nutshell, I enjoyed it but wasn’t really riveted – maybe NBC did their job a little too well in creating a debate-like atmosphere, because my attention began to drift about 3/4 of the way through the way it does during real debates. While the producers have tried not to play favourites between the candidates thus far in the season, it seemed pretty obvious to me that the debate was playing Smits up as the more likeable, knowledgable candidate. Alda came off as grumpy, argumentative and flustered (sound familiar?) – not the same Vinick he’s been presenting in the show. I definitely liked Smits’ little speech about the word “liberal”, though that’s probably because I was being pandered to by the writers. I give everyone involved credit with pulling off a live show, it was interesting to watch and I admit, I kept hoping something amazingly unpredictable would happen like a lighting rig falling and crushing the audience or a wild boar breaking into the studio. No suck luck.

Media response – The Mercury News is on the fence about what to think (though it doesn’t sound like I need to bother downloading the west coast episode – no wild boars there, either), CBS is not impressed that NBC ran an “NBC News” logo overtop the whole thing and The Chicago Sun-Times just thought it stunk. And as an interesting sidebar – Aaron Sorkin is returning to network TV. And on NBC, no less.

np – Okkervil River / Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See

By : Frank Yang at 8:54 am
Category: Uncategorized
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  1. Thierry says:

    A few of thoughts on the the Okkervil River/Minus Story show…

    Minus Story were indeed excellent – their last song, which to me came off as Radiohead covering "House of the Rising Sun" (in part because of a guitar freakout that sounded straight out of Jonny Greenwood’s playbook).

    As for Okkervil River, they were fantastic – one of the best shows I’ve seen this year (and a long set too – well over 1.5 hours). Live, Will Sheff’s voice sounded much closer to Rhett Miller’s than on record (maybe that’s the strepthroat?), and as a whole the band’s performance brought to mind a more ornate Old 97’s, mixing country touches (pedal steel, mandolin) with dark folk and baroque pop (some of the trumpet parts could have been lifted from Love’s Forever Changes). Anyhow, it was beautiful to see a band put every bit of their hearts and souls into their performance. Great show.

  2. Frank says:

    interesting, another guy last night made the Rhett Miller comparison, and I just don’t hear it. To mine ears, Miller (and the Old 97s in general) havs a more conventional twangy voice, more pop and smart-alecky. Okkervil (and Sheff’s voice) comes from a completely different place, more souther gothic and all-around darker. Maybe on a more objective level their timbres are similar, but I can’t draw any parallels between the music so it never occurred to me.

  3. fs says:

    definately one of the best shows of the year!

    right before they played "for real" what song was that? it sounded like a cover of something but I couldn’t figure it out.

    and I can see see the Old 97’s comparison but at the same time would never mistake them for the band as they are more indie rock than twang.

    How is the older album compared to the new stuff?

  4. rock yenta says:

    Funny, I was missing Rhett Miller and hated the show last night. All that faux angst. I can appreciate their enthuisasm but the music was all over the place and lacked focus.

  5. Craig says:

    Great review Frank. It was an incredible show. Looking forward to hearing your opinions about the "appendix" album.

  6. Sandra says:

    I was completely new to the band, and thought it was a great show. But I can sorta see where rock yenta’s coming from; there were a few times I thought Sheff veered into hammy theatrics which somewhat altered my perception of the rest of his performance. But I do appreciate they really put the pedal to the metal last night. I thought musically they were brilliant: explosive and really solid at the same time. I definitely enjoyed it.

  7. Shoma says:

    I don’t understand the Rhett Miller comparisons either, it certainly wasn’t on my mind during the show.

    The “theatrics” didn’t seem out of place to me, I thought it fit, but then again I wanted it to fit. After figuratively moving mountains to go to a show I always want to enjoy what I’m seeing/hearing so my opinions may be clouded by my desire to think of it all as “worth it.”

    It’s funny, the first line of “War Criminals…” always makes me groan, but by the end of the song I’ve forgotten the objectionable phrase mainly because of the trumpet. More trumpet.

  8. alpha says:

    May be bad form or lacking in manners to ask here: but does anyone have bootlegs of the show? i have no luck with attending an OR concert…

  9. matthew says:

    Thanks for posting your thoughts on the West Wing debate! (It’s nice being humoured.) I thought Smits came off as the much better candidate, too, but I think if I were more inclined towards small-government, tax-cutting, pro-death penalty, etc., conservatism, I would’ve thought that about Alda. I loved every second of the episode, but I’m just geeky that way…

  10. worst weather ever says:

    i think you all saw the show i wish i did. instead i think lawrence got an off-night for them. no black, no war criminal, weird attitude. blah.

  11. Distopian_Dreamer says:

    Wow. Holy frick’n shit! Definitely one of the best shows I’ve ever seen period. They were imperfect, sloppy, intense, passionate…it’s just really amazing to see a band just cut loose like that! I flew in from Winnipeg to see these guys and it was worth every cent! Were it not for your constant posts praising this band Frank, I probably would not have made the trip. I wanted to totally geek out on merch, but I only had enough for a shirt. I’m officially obsessed with this band…