Fie on those who think that rock shows have to be dumb in order to be fun. Okkervil River might be considered one of the smartest bands out there, and yet, live, they’re as rockin’ as a high school cover band at an all-night kegger. Though the River might be prone to a gloomy moodiness, as dare I say all intelligent creatures are (humans most especially), when up there on stage the five members are flushed and excited, they play hard and fast. Front-man Will Scheff screams and jumps like it was the last night of his life, dressed in jacket and tie like a cross between Angus Young and a pre-rehab Gerard Way, eventually shedding down to a t-shirt over a sweaty two hours.
Which might be why Okkervil has been selling out all their New York shows these past few years, despite being a self-described “mid-level band” based in Texas, best known for sad songs and elliptical, highly referential lyrics displayed in the liner notes (and on the okkervilriver.com website) like little prose poems. It’s even hard to get an Okkervil song fully without seeing it on the page, full of parentheticals and odd punctuation. But on stage, all stops are pulled. Scheff, who can’t quite be called charismatic with his slightly goofy, laconic droopiness, is entirely and absolutely himself on stage. That honesty must be what appeals to so many Okkervil fans, mostly unisex, mostly college-aged, who cheer and sing along with all the lyrics with a collegiate ardor usually reserved for Dave Matthews.
The ethos is best shown in one of the show-openers “Unless It’s Kicks”, off the newest album The Stage Names. “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man. Unless it’s fiction,” sings Scheff in this up-tempo, riff-heavy song, showing the glee and showmanship of mid-50s rockabilly. That genuine love of the audience, of performing, touring, and all the requisite pains and annoyances, is the basis for The Stage Names, an album about how life is not like pop culture yet can’t be separated from it.
“This one goes out to all the plus-ones out there,” said Scheff before going into “Plus Ones”, referring to the nameless adjuncts to guest listers, anonymous VIPs. The song itself is all all about adding your own life to a pop song—“No one really cares about the 100th luftballoon,” he sings, in a weird way reversing the adage from Rilke: “To all this, the broken and the botched, gladly add yourself then cancel the count.” People love these pop songs that Scheff breezes through in a string of allusions. And so they won’t cancel the count, and are canceled themselves.
Many of Scheff’s songs are blatantly about his role as a musician, like the happily apologetic “No Key, No Plan” off the intense 6-song EP follow-up to the award-winning Black Sheep Boy. “I’m doing what I really like and getting paid for it. There is no key, there’s no plan; I discovered that. And, truly I don’t think you’ll find a happier man.“ And then: “(You’ve never earned your soul.) I know, but I’m going to try, though.”
They then went into a few older songs, like fan favorite “Lady Liberty” with its odd, screamed refrain “There is a bathroom down the hall!” which made question marks visibly appear above my head the first time I heard it. Ah, there is a bathroom down the hall, where “you can wash out your lying eyes.” Makes much more sense now. They paused in the action for a slow re-rendition of the old tune “Down the River of Golden Dreams”, leading into “It Ends with a Fall” done faster and harder than the album version.
“I’d like to thank the person who threw the piece of ladies hosiery on stage. That’s never happened before.” From the crowd, a man cries, “It was me!”
They also played the oddest and perhaps best song on The Stage Names, the unauthorized post-mortem autobiography of John Berryman called “John Allyn Smith Sails”. It goes from a recount of the last few weeks of Berryman’s life before throwing himself off a bridge in Minneapolis, into a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B”. It turns “I feel so broke up, I wanna go home,” into something like a summation, “this is the worst trip I ever been on,” being as adequate a summation of life, or a voyage, or a bad night of drinking, as any. Whichever Brian Wilson intended.
Interesting how an album called The Stage Names is fascinated by people who work under assumed names, like John Berryman (born John Allyn Smith) and the 80s porn star Savanna (born Shannon Longoria), saying something about how culture can consume life.
The few moments of gloom were intense and extended, like the spotlighted “Black Sheep Boy”, a poignant cover of the Tim Hardin song, as much in reference to the sad life and end of Hardin as it is to all talented outcasts. “A Girl in Port” was the only slow song off The Stage Names to make it to this stage. And for an encore, they played a heartfelt version of “A Stone”, using only voice and a lap-steel. The audience was either psychic or highly persuasive, because almost every song screamed out from the front was played in encore, from “A Stone” to “Okkervil River the Song” (screamed in tandem by a pair of front-row girls) and, finally, “Westfall”.
“Westfall” is an odd choice for a fan-favorite, a song about a young killer who murders a girl named Laurie for no reason, just because “it was so easy I wanted to kill her again.”
“All these cameras focused on my face, you’d think they could see through my skin. They’re looking for evil, thinking they can trace it, but,” sang Scheff, leaning out into the audience, “evil don’t look like anything.” The audience took over the line, screaming it back in repetition as he did until the song ended, and they left the stage.
It looked for a moment like they might come back for a second encore, like they did at the also-sold-out Bowery Ballroom show last fall. But no. They left an audience wanting more, and nearly guaranteed another sold-out show the next time they come back to the city.