Monday, October 13th, 2008

Unless It Kicks

Okkervil River and Crooked Fingers at the Phoenix in Toronto

Photo by Frank Yang

Some people spend Thanksgiving with their families. I spend mine with rock’n’roll bands. Two years ago at Pop Montreal, last year at The Phoneix with The National and this year again at the Phoneix with Okkervil River and Crooked Fingers. It’s okay – my parents have a habit of being out of the country on Thanksgiving so it’s not like I’m a total no-account son. Just mostly. Anyways.

It’s not like I was the only one – the Phoenix was pretty much full of people skipping out on turkey day to welcome what was pretty much one of the best touring bills you’d be likely to see. And while I was, as always, excited to see Okkervil River, this would be the fourth time in less than a year that I’d be seeing them – Crooked Fingers, on the other hand, had been ages. Eric Bachmann had come through as a solo artist (with band) two years ago and as a solo act under the Crooked Fingers name (opening for The Delgados back in 2004 but the last time Crooked Fingers came to Toronto as a proper band was March 2005 and while I went to that show I wasn’t a fan at the time and… you know what? Never mind. It’d been a while.

One consequence of Bachmann’s constantly shifting musical identities is that you’ll rarely get the same band from one tour to the next. This time out, Crooked Fingers was the four-piece who recorded their new record Forfeit/Fortune but in addition to the new material, they were tasked with covering songs from throughout Bachmann’s varied career and results were a bit mixed. For starters, they had to fight through a mix that just didn’t sound quite right – the balance between Bachmann’s powerful rasp and the softer vocals of bassist Miranda Brown and violinist Elin Palmer never managed to find the sweet spot – and while airing out Archers Of Loaf classic “Web In Front” brought many cheers, the arrangement didn’t have the necessary muscle to do it justice. On the plus side, the new songs sounded mostly excellent stripped of the album’s heavier production and the older Crooked Fingers repertoire sounded terrific, no qualifiers. Though they could have played more from Dignity & Shame.

Okkervil also came in with their own share of lineup shuffling – while keyboardist Justin Sherburn had been Jonathan Meiburg’s official replacement since March, guitarist Charles Bissell, who’d stepped in for new father Brian Cassidy at the same time had done his tour of duty and returned to the Wrens and his replacement was Austinite Lauren Gurgiolo, tasked with handling guitar, mandolin and steel duties. But such fluidity is in the nature of every river, even the Okkervil. Yes, I went there. Let’s move on.

Every time I’ve seen Okkveril River live – and I think this was time six or seven – they’ve put on an even better show and considering their last couple visits set the bar pretty high, that’s an accomplishment. This time out, they had the advantage of touring behind their most out and out rocking record in The Stand-Ins, sequel to last year’s The Stage Names. Kicking off with “Plus Ones”, Okkervil barreled through an over ninety-minute set that focused on their last two opuses, Stage Names/Stand Ins and Black Sheep Boy, only reaching back to their debut Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See for the rousing encore-closing double shot of “Okkervil River Song” and “Westfall”, the latter featuring a boisterous audience sing-along. And while I’d hoped to hear the lyrically-updated version of “The President’s Dead” that’s been making appearances this tour, it wasn’t to be this night. Did they not know we also have an election tomorrow?

The band’s steady evolution from a folk to rock band has done wonders for their live set – originally, they had to deliver the slower end of their repertoire with a solid dose of slop and anarchy to generate the energy necessary for a riveting live set. And while it was an exhilarating experience, it wasn’t always pretty. Now, with the relentless touring having tightened them up immeasurably, Okkervil are an amazing live act to behold and there was no need to make excuses for missing notes or being off-key, because it didn’t happen. Though if you were looking for a little of the old chaos, it was there when Will Sheff pulled the mic off the stand and knocked it down, directly on the head of a girl in the front row (she was fine). Accidental assaults notwithstanding, Sheff was a magnetic frontman, starting off besuited and bespectacled and steadily shedding his wardrobe as he became more and more sweat-soaked from bounding around stage and working the crowd, the patron saint of English majors who secretly wish they were rock stars.

The Toronto Star has an interview with Sheff covering topics such as the fertile Austin music scene and Canadian Thanksgiving traditions. Chart talks to Eric Bachmann about Forfeit/Fortune.

Photos: Okkervil River, Crooked Fingers @ The Phoenix – October 12, 2008
MP3: Okkervil River – “Lost Coastlines”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”
MP3: Okkervil River – “The President’s Dead”
MP3: Okkervil River – “No Key, No Plan”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Black”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Phony Revolutions”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Call To Love”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Big Darkness”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Devil’s Train”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “New Drink For The Old Drunk”
Video: Okkervil River – “Lost Coastlines”
Video: Okkervil River – “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”
Video: Okkervil River – “Girl In Port”
Video: Okkervil River – “For Real”
Video: Crooked Fingers – “Let’s Not Pretend (To Be New Men)”
MySpace: Okkervil River
MySpace: Crooked Fingers

By : Frank Yang at 10:40 am
Category: Concert Reviews

Tags: ,

RSS Feed for this post4 Responses.
  1. Aimz says:

    Great review and fantastic photos! I hope your camera did not get damaged by Will Sheff’s projectile sweat. Also agree with your assessment of Crooked Fingers.

  2. Scott says:

    Web In Front caught me offguard – and I think any complaint I had about them was all due to the sound.

    I was an Okkervil novice (as in: heard each album maybe once) – so that was a bit of an experience… pleasant, but when the whole crowd is freaking out to songs you don’t know, it makes for an intriguing night out.

    Well worth it – and, really, I’d go anywhere to see Eric play just about anything [smirk].

  3. cmailman says:

    Okkervil went from one of my favorite bands to one of my least liked bands, wierd that this has happened but I cannot stand Will’s voice anymore.

  4. Sara says:

    "And while it was an exhilarating experience, it wasn’t always pretty. Now, with the relentless touring having tightened them up immeasurably, Okkervil are an amazing live act to behold and there was no need to make excuses for missing notes or being off-key, because it didn’t happen."

    A brilliant assessment! I couldn’t figure out how to put it into words other than "they sound so… professional now." Is it shallow to wish for those sloppy days again?