Okkervil River Regroups
Brooklynite stretches revamped band at the Parish
By Doug Freeman,
1:45PM, Thu. Sep. 29, 2016
Last December, Will Sheff returned to Austin for a solo tour celebrating the 10th anniversary of Okkervil River’s breakout LP, Black Sheep Boy. Even then, the formerly longtime local was clearly trying to reshape his catalog. The time had come to reimagine his songs, redefine his band, and re-evaluate his own relationship to music.
Wednesday night at the Parish, those impulses tangled with his new touring band, which reinvented some songs to remarkable effect and at other times let jams devolve with little clear direction. Even with the most confounding of the new arrangements, however, Sheff appeared thrilled to be in a new moment, where songs roared fresh and uncertain. Fervor accompanied all uncharted territories.
Sheff led off the 100-minute set with the opening track from the band’s newly released Away, the aptly titled “Okkervil River R.I.P.” Amid the autumn-themed, lamp-lit stage, Sheff’s chapped voice tumbled forth with a familiar wail and cathartic crack. His new quartet added layers that pushed the singer in new ways.
At times restrained and still hesitant, especially compared to the natural chemistry that developed with Okkervil’s longstanding previous players, the new band offered myriad highlights nonetheless. Benjamin Lazar Davis’ upright bass and Will Graefe’s electric guitar stood out in particular. The latter especially was given free range during many of the songs, ripping from harsh, jagged riffs and epic power ballad turns to jazzy and almost dissonant runs.
Following new tune “Call Yourself Renee,” Sheff dug back into The Stage Names’ “Plus Ones,” which paired well with the biting spin of “The Industry.” The frontman beamed throughout. Between songs, he bantered about his memories playing the Parish in various incarnations over decades now, which rather than reinforcing the band’s local roots only emphasized that fact that he moved to Brooklyn.
“Mary on a Wave” and “A Girl in Port” both torqued emotionally, but as the band left the stage and Sheff took over solo, “Pink Slips” remade as an acoustic ballad proved one of the most intriguing turns among Okkervil’s reimagining. Sheff dug deepest with “The War Criminal Rises and Speaks” from 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams, but also hit previous LP The Silver Gymnasium with the dark and brooding “Down Down the Deep River.”
The Stage Names’ “Unless It’s Kicks” landed Sheff’s greatest stretch, turning the song into an unexpected synthy, danceable track. The ripping cacophony of “For Real” closed. A one-song encore offered up the apropos “So Come Back, I Am Waiting” from Black Sheep Boy, which the quintet uprooted via Graefe’s blazing guitar.
Although the set largely felt developmental, Sheff’s vision for Okkervil River will evolve. For now, he and the group seem to revel in a certain limbo. Breaking expectations by re-forming the past and shaping a new path for the future lay ahead.