There were a couple signs Friday night of how uncommon a songwriter Okkervil River’s Will Sheff is. For one, he has the decade-plus back catalog and the fan base to have created a standout moment during his second encore at the Wonder Ballroom: With the band remaining backstage, he plugged in his slightly weathered Martin acoustic and paused … “Umm, what song—“
Before he could complete the question, the crowd lurched forward and began screaming titles. To that point in the night, Sheff had left enough well-known Okkervil songs unplayed that the result was less jubilant appreciation and more chaos. Part of that had simply to do with the song titles people were attempting to spit out above the din.
Sheff has written lyric-oriented folk rock ambitiously and progressively enough through the years that he’s not a willing jukebox. You had to wonder on some level why he even opened the floor that way.
“I’m hearing so many songs I don’t ever want to play again in my whole life,” he said, smiling certainly, but moving his capo idly around the fret board as if waffling on which request bothered him the least.
The crowd found that line a little funny and Sheff ended up playing a very old song — 2002’s namesake track “Okkervil River Song” — and exiting with a wave. It was about the only time all night (other than someone yelling “Donald Trump!” as though it were “Fire!” in a crowded theater) that Sheff seemed uncomfortable.
Sheff released his new album, Away, last month with a somewhat dire narrative to shoulder the exquisitely produced and mostly downbeat goodbyes and self-reflections. In the three years since his last album, the entire band turned over and Sheff spent a lot of time near the deathbed of his grandfather (the man the songwriter has repeatedly called his “hero”). And though a tough labor surrounds the songs, Sheff has said in the press that he feels closer to his art than he has in a decade. Tall, lean almost to the point of looking underfed, in a half-unbuttoned shirt, pointed boots and the same-as-ever haircut that makes him look 25 years old (he’s now 40), the frontman appeared easily, contentedly disheveled on the Wonder’s stage.
For a brief word on people who, conversely, thrive on nerves, the Brooklyn quintet Landlady opened the show. Led by Adam Schatz, the band pounded out a bizarre but gripping brand of avant garde power pop. Enunciating like Peter Gabriel but bending vowels like Sam Herring, the set saw Schatz aggressively running and jumping in place, eyes popping from under his heavy brow. Opening with a song that hinged on the repeated line “Next to the tomato seeds, please bury me with my sheep,” Landlady set the stage for Okkervil by declaring it a place of free and unintelligible expression.
Around 10 p.m., the headliner broke into Away, which is a plaintive, drifting album played Friday night in a plaintive, drifting manner. The stage was wreathed in artificial autumn leaves, garnishing the songs in another layer of life cycle commentary. Songs like “Okkervil River R.I.P.” (which is how Away opens) and “Call Yourself Renee” felt fluttery, peaceful. The emphasis was on the new material, more than with a normal tour for a new album. The old songs Sheff and company did play were mostly reworked versions of rockers from 2007’s The Stage Names, including an accelerated synth-driven version of fan favorite “Unless It’s Kicks” and a decelerated, languid rendition of “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe.” The band only played one song (“Down The Deep River”) from 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium, an album mapped out across and drawing from Sheff’s actual childhood and adolescent recollections. The frontman has described that album as having cleared the nostalgia slate for him, and looks back to the past in this show were deliberate, repackaged, and with an eye toward something other than crowd-pleasing. That much was confirmed when Sheff finally opened the floor for requests and the audience seemed so momentarily desperate to be heard. (It’s worth noting that most Okkervil River songs played live land in the 5- or 6-minute region. Even in a 90+ minute show, eight albums of material was not going to come across as anything that felt like an even discography sample.)
It’s entirely possible at this point in Sheff’s musical journey that the crowd dictating the set list just isn’t that important. At one point the singer pulled out his phone to show a video of his maybe four-year-old nephew stomping around screaming a particularly raw lyric from “Okkervil River R.I.P.” — “I was escorted from the premises for being a mess!”
Everyone got a kick out of it. For having so many songs about failure and disillusionment that end up sounding revelatory, Okkervil River is playing and presenting the new songs like failure isn’t a possibility.
– Chance Solem-Pfeifer