Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Family's Unowned Boy

It's just a house burning, but it's not haunted.
It was your heart hurting, but not for too long, kid.
--Okkervil River, "Our Life is Not a Movie Or Maybe"

Watching Will Sheff on stage is mesmerizing and sometimes heart-stopping. He careens about onstage during a song's more energetic moments, crouching, kicking, spinning, ricocheting from one side of the stage to the other, curling around his battered acoustic like it is the most important and vulnerable part of himself. Then comes the inevitable moment when he stumbles, his ankles enshrouded by the serpentine cables that he has been carousing amongst, or he lunges for the mic stand to steady himself, only to discover that his hoped-for support is precariously balanced on the apron of the stage. For a slow-motion second, Sheff teeters--it's unclear whether he will stay vertical or not--only to right himself and resume his frantic pin balling. Sheff and Okkervil River always give it their all. This is the heart-stopping.

The mesmerizing comes when this thirty-two year-old man turns a certain way into the spot-light, his eyes closed, his mouth agape, his pale skin glistening with sweat, and his moppy reddish hair tousled around his face, and he looks like the most sincere child you've ever seen. He energetically strums his capoed guitar, and I can't remember if I am watching a performer who collaborates with several bands and has his name attached to recordings (and writings), or if I am standing against the wall of the old RagTag, watching a band of sixteen year-olds on Academy of Rock night. When he steps to the mic and sings, the lyrics make it clear--sometimes. Is he a skilled, mature writer, penning thematically-linked poems set to music about life, loss, love, and longing, or is he a student, addicted to purple prose? Much more often than not, Sheff is the former, but, I couldn't stop thinking last night: he's a boy...he's a man.

A typically robust set last night. Starting with The Stage Names' "A Girl in Port," the bespectacled Sheff and his band mates (including a pair of new additions to this tour (I think)), made their way through songs old and new, leaning heavily on the "mid tempo, mid-volume" side of the catalogue. Several times, the band lowered the volume, only to make it clear to me, in the swell of conversation that filled the crowded Slowdown, that maybe a lot of folks came to see the opening band, Omaha favorites Neva Denova.

The band plowed through the din, and seemed to focus on the attention and adulation they received from those patrons surrounding the stage (that was me down there--house right, behind the two big guys wearing the pork pie hats). Okkervil River has been to Omaha countless times, and it seems that Sheff remembers every one. ("Who saw us at the Junction," he asked. "Who saw us at California Taco? We've been here a million fucking times.") Moreover, it looked like the band was having a great time up there. They always do, but, last night, they seemed particular ebullient.

After shedding his standard black suit jacket (at least, it's become standard, the last couple shows I've seen), his glasses, his tie, and after running through an hour-plus set, and a first encore, the band returned for a second encore. Sheff stood at the mic, now stripped down to a hand-made t-shirt, and launched into the crowd's clear favorite of the night, the second-best American song about killing someone ever written, Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See's "Westfall." And, as a bizarre trio of kids crowded in front of me and gyrated against each other in the most inappropriate display of enthusiasm I may have ever seen, I watched that mannish-boy up in the lights (and his mates) leave it all out on the stage...again.


La Fashionista said...

Except for the inappropriate wild group gyration, I definitely feel that I'm missing something as I read your post. It sounds like an excellent show. I'd love to see them, but unfortunately their tour is scant around the mid-Atlantic area - nothing closer to DC than Richmond, and then right up to NYC.

I hope all the music has been treating you and Monkey well in the past days!


boring election said...

As Chris and I drove out of Lawrence on Saturday morning contemplating what to do with the day, we toyed with heading north towards Omaha to see the show that night. Reading your post, I sort of wish we had. The Lawrence show was amazing, and we both wanted more. But common sense won out of impulse and we ended up back in BoCoMo instead. Oh well...

The last two times I've seen Okkervil River (last April in St. Louis w/ The New Pornographers) and Friday night in Lawrence, I have felt like they're finally hitting their stride. I've ALWAYS enjoyed their show, but Sheff hasn't always sounded great to me. And in these two shows it seems like he's found himself as a performer. The kinetic unpredictability hasn't been lost, but they just sound better. He sounds better, the arrangements are fuller...

Anyway, glad we both were treated to excellent shows. Wish I could see them again - particularly the Chicago show in October w/ Crooked Fingers. Alas, I'm afraid it won't be so.

Hope your anniversary weekend was a good one!

Take care!

comoprozac said...

That is exactly how I'd describe Will Sheff. Nice review.

I finally got around to listening to the new one. (I was busy.) And it's a perfect companion to The Stage Names.

La Fashionista said...

I just read P your review, and he was very impressed - said you should try selling it. Nice work!



Anonymous said...

Two interesting notes. In the lp version of The Stage Names, on the insert there is a photo of the Red Lion Inn (downtown Omaha). Also, Okkervil River is by one Tatyana Tolstaya. I believe it's a story about a singer. Off to see Neko Case at the same venue this evening.