The New Pornographers/Okkervil River; April 21, 2008; Orpheum Theater
Okkervil River has long been one of my favorite live bands sitting somewhere in the top 5 of a list headed by the Wrens, hands down the greatest live band on the planet. So probably no one was happier than me when it was announced that the Wrens’ Charles Bissell would be filling in on guitar for Brian whose wife was having a baby. There has long been a connection between the two bands, a split single with Okkervil covering “Ex-Girlfriend Collection” and the Wrens “It Starts with a Fall” has been rumored to be in the works for years. The Wrens even opened a set in Boston with the latter, it sounded so natural in their hands that it wasn’t till after the show that I figured out it wasn’t their song.
I can’t imagine any band ever wanting to follow Okkervil River, even bands I love like the New Pornographers or the Decemberists (who they played with a few years back at the Barrymore). Their shows are too intense, too powerful to try to follow. While the New Pornographers certainly did a fair job, it was Okkervil’s performance that stuck with me. Songs from last year’s “The Stage Names” became even more dramatic on the Orpheum’s big stage, and lead singer Will Sheff seemed to feed on the crowd’s energy. Always a physical performer, he seemed even more out of control than usual. Running back and forth across the stage, strumming his acoustic furiously, he seemed to be having the time of his life. In fact, that was true of the whole band- I don’t think I have ever seen Travis play drums with more ferocity or a bigger smile.
“A Girl in Port” and “Sloop John B” were even better live than on record, but it was their second record’s “Westfall” that really got me. A tale that unfolds from the point of view of a young man who killed a girl for no reason, in fact “it was so easy, I wanted to kill her again.” Long a live favorite, the haunting ending where he explains that “evil don’t look like anything,” which the audience usually ends up singing along with was even more powerful tonight. Charles playing the mandolin on this one was a very pleasant surprise. Throughout the song, and in truth much of the evening, I found myself watching him more than anyone else. It was pleasantly odd seeing all the mannerisms I have grown so accustomed to with a different band.
Not content with stealing the show during their set, the Okkervil boys managed to steal a good part of the New Pornographers show too. Multi-instrumentalist Scott joined them on trumpet for a song, while Will played the part of Dan Bejar on “Myriad Harbor” later in the night. I’ve seen NP play Dan’s songs without him before (“Jackie Dressed in Cobras” at the Barrymore), but apparently this one was just too purely Dan. Kathryn told us later that Carl felt like he would be doing a bad Dan impression trying to do that song. As it was, Will did an excellent Dan, and that may have been my favorite song of the night.
The Orpheum is a difficult room. I never quite know where to sit, too close and you strain your neck, too far and the sound bounces around under the balcony. While we ended up in a near perfect spot three rows back (thanks Nick!), the sound still was not good, most of their show sounded muddy and in comparison to Okkervil the band seemed a bit tired. That exhaustion seemed to evaporate when they returned for the encore, a spot on cover of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Usually I prefer a band to make a song their own, in this case nailing it was all the more impressive. They followed that with “My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” which may be my favorite New Pornographers song ever.
While Bejar seldom makes the rounds with the band, Neko Case frequently takes time out from her own career to tour with the band, so it wasn’t all that surprising when it was announced that she would be with them on this tour. Alas, she suffered an injury in the days preceding the show and was forced to withdraw. Once again, all I could say was “Neko who?” Kathryn Calder (the one New Pornographer who has been in my basement) does such an excellent job covering both of their vocals that having Case on tour is simply stage dressing. So while I don’t care whether or not Case joins for them for the next tour, I do hope that they return to the much better sounding (and less intimidating) Barrymore.