Okkervil River Rolls Again

IMG_5731On the inaugural night of the new Okkervil River tour Sunday at D.C.’s Black Cat, frontman Will Sheff kept saying what a joy it was there to be there and perform.

He brought up that word joy more than once, possibly because he has been accused of being a Gloomy Gus in recent years, sending out sad song after song for a band that itself imploded a couple of albums ago.

But he recruited the road band he hastily assembled for his last tour as his new permanent band, with which he recorded the new “In the Rainbow Rain” album that came out last month on Ato Records. It also contains a number of contemplative songs, but one by one, each one seems to fight to become anthemic by the time they are over. That, mixed in with favorite songs from five of the band’s earlier eight albums, made the night seem absolutely upbeat.

With long hair, wire framed glasses and bushy beard, Sheff was the spitting image of “Give Peace a Chance” era John Lennon, and his ambition wasn’t far from that with his personal, expansive and poetic songs from throughout his career, with lyrics fans in the audience were seen to sublimely sing along to all night.

The most simplified of the new songs seemed to work best live, from the loping and catchy opening advisory, “Don’t Move Back to LA” to probably the only song to ever focus on “Famous Tracheotomies.”

That terrific tune begins as a personal history — as Sheff gave his parents a scare with the necessary procedure as a baby, and then recounts a litany of famous names who had the same experience — from Gary Coleman of “Diff’rent Strokes” to Motown queen Mary Wells to Dylan Thomas to Ray Davies, whose experience at 13 at the St. Thomas Hospital gave him a chance to witness a scene he’d write about a decade. And Sheff’s song ends with the memorable melody of that Kinks classic, “Waterloo Sunset.”

Shelf’s been known to play around with classic figures and titles in rock history, such as his “Plus Ones,” which turned toyed with imagined rock sequels from “97 Tears” to “100 Luftballoons”; “Eight Chinese Brothers” to “TVC16.”

The band played that one, as well as a couple of others from their 2007 album “The Stage Names,” “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” and the can’t fail finale encore tune, “Unless it’s Kicks.”

Shelf has affection for his new bandmates, though none of them got to share the spotlight much. Keyboardist Sarah Pedinotti (who also stepped in to play bass at one point) provided nice harmonies all night, and soloed to start the driving “Lost Coastlines” that began the encore.

Lead guitarist Will Graefe had an interesting approach to guitar – coloring and inventing rather than slashing and driving. But even he wasn’t featured that much. Cully Symington’s drums were augmented by the percussion of Jeremy Guston, who had earlier backed the opener,  Benjamin Lazar Davis.

The wild-haired Davis played bass for Okkervil River, but fronted his own duo singing tremulous psycho-folk, including one song performed atop a chair in the middle of the crowd. For the opening set, Guston projected slides of paintings on his bass drum head that switched with a kick pedal, bringing more innovation on the road.

The setlist for Okkervil River Sunday was: 

  • “Don’t Move Back to LA”
  • “It Ends With a Fall “
  • “Love Somebody”
  • “Down the Deep River”
  • “Famous Tracheotomies”
  • “Plus Ones”
  • “Pulled Up the Ribbon”
  • “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke”
  • “Black”
  • “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe”
  • “For Real”
  • “Lost Coastlines”
  • “Starry Stairs”
  • “Unless It’s Kicks”


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