Thursday, September 06, 2007

Okkervil River

Way back in March 2005, I went to see The Decemberists in Salt Lake City, with an opening act called Okkervil River. Since opening bands are generally hit-or-miss, and since I had never heard of them, I showed up late, catching only about three or four songs at the end of their set. They were decent enough, but didn't really catch my ear on the first, live, listen. A few months later, though, I heard a song of theirs on internet radio, downloaded a few more, and soon was in the throes of a buy-all-their-albums, listen-to-them-daily, tell-all-my-friends obsession that hasn't yet abated. I've been kicking myself, these past two years, that I missed the chance to really listen to them live.

Well, no longer. In support of their new album, The Stage Names, they played a show in San Francisco last night. I've had my tickets for over a month, the 5th was marked on my calendar with tons of exclamation points, and the thought of the concert was the only thing keeping me alive during my seven hours in a row of grad classes. (Have I mentioned that I have the world's worst class schedule?)

I left for the concert a little later than I wanted, mostly because I burned the Campbell's tomato soup I was going to have for dinner, and was forced to throw together a different sort of instant meal at the last minute, and I just barely missed the train I should have gotten on, forcing me to wait another fifteen minutes for the next one. I didn't want to miss the opening act this time, because, hey, you never know how you'll feel about them in a year's time, so when I got off the train in San Francisco's Castro District, I was feeling hurried, and decided to run the ten blocks from the train station to the club. I took off my favorite pair of flimsy sandals, which are comfortable but hard to run in, and sprinted uphill past a quick cross-section of San Francisco society: gay and lesbian couples, then gentrified yuppie types, then clumps of hipster 20-somethings waiting outside the club. No one turned to look twice at the girl running down the street, alone, at nine o'clock at night, sandals in hand, purse bouncing with every step. This is a big city, after all, whose motto should be "San Francisco: We've Seen Weirder."

I'm sore today, both from the uphill run and from the fact that I spent the entire hour and a half of the concert standing on tiptoe, but, let me tell you, it was worth it. They began with my current favorite track from the new album, "Plus Ones," which I love for its numerical wordplay, and it only got better from there, as they went through a setlist that included a generous amount from older albums (including, to my great delight, "Black," "It Ends With a Fall," and "Okkervil River Song"), as well as the highlights from the new album, like "Unless It's Kicks," which Will Sheff, the lead singer, declared was the band's new anthem, with its focus on "some midlevel band" which has "been driving too long," and "John Allyn Smith Sails," whose transition into the Beach Boys's "Sloop John B" was like a descent into a dirge, given the way words like "I feel so broke up" are woven into a song about failure and suicide. And, of course, they played their latest single, "Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe," prefaced by an amusing story about how, for their appearance on Conan O'Brien on the same night as Jeff Goldblum, they rewrote some of the lyrics of the song to reference movies like Independence Day and Jurassic Park. They were told they couldn't play them for Conan, apparently, so they played them for us. Throughout the night, I had my fingers crossed for some of my other favorites, like maybe "The President's Dead" or "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," and was slightly disappointed not to hear them, but the last song changed that: hearing "Westfall" live, and having the concert finish with the entire crowd singing "evil don't look like anything" along with the band, was quite enough bliss for one night.

At no point in the night, though, did I even feel a trace of disappointment with the performance itself. The cast of instruments was varied--guitars and drums and piano, of course, but also a mandolin and an accordion and a trumpet and maracas and a tambourine--and all six band members were full of energy, especially Will Sheff, who got more and more casual as the night went on, shedding first his suit jacket, then his tie, then his crisp white button-up in favor the T-shirt underneath, as he jumped around on stage, his always-emotional voice nearly a histrionic wail as he sang lines like "wish I could remember why it mattered to me/It doesn't matter to me anymore." With that sort of on-stage enthusiasm, I believed him when, later, he claimed, in song, "I'm doing what I really like and getting paid for it."

Given my love for this band, I'm glad to hear that from them, and I hope they will continue doing what they really like for years and years, as long as, of course, that implies they'll continue putting out hyperliterary albums as good as Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names and giving concerts as good as the one last night. Laugh at me all you want--my friend Emily certainly did--but I had a giant grin on my face all through the concert, and the high still hasn't left me today. Will Sheff may sing that he "[doesn't] know what notes you want to hear played" and "can't think what lines you'd like me to sing or say," but I say, don't worry, Will, you're doing just fine--you've got great reviews, an upcoming international tour, and the undying love of this particular fan. Sing whatever you want, and I'll be listening.


lanada said...

i like you, petra. have i ever told you that?

Th. said...


Well, I guess I know what I want next time we feed you.