Okkervil River/The Walkmen; September 14, 2008; Barrymore Theater
The last time Okkervil headlined in Madison it was a sold-out show at the High Noon Saloon, so it was obvious that they needed to play a larger venue the next time through. At over twice the capacity, the Barrymore seemed a big jump but rumor was only a hundred tickets remained at show time. Not bad. Having gotten a taste of what it is like to play at the Orpheum Theater while on tour with the New Pornographers, they are probably eying the 1400 capacity venue for their next stop. They are probably doing this well everywhere, but Okkervil does have a few ties to Madison that have always made them popular here. For one, always entertaining drummer Travis Nelsen called this home for more than a few years, while the venerable Crystal Corner bar gets name checked in the lovely “Girl In Port” from last year’s stellar The Stage Names.
Last time through Charles Bissell of the Wrens was filling in on guitar, and he joked to me that he was only replacing “half of Brian” Cassidy, the multi-instrumentalist who left the band after the birth of his first child. They now have a new full time member with the addition of Lauren Gurgiolo, who switched between all manner of stringed things. Granted anyone would have been a disappointment after Charles, but her complete lack of stage presence was even more noticeable in comparison. Just last year in Milwaukee I commented that the line-up finally seemed to have cemented, it seems I spoke too soon as only half of that band remains. I miss Jonathan, but at least Scott Brackett and his trumpet as well as nothing-but-trouble bassist Patrick Pestorius remain. The latter stood in remarkably well for Jonathan’s Stephen Merritt impersonation on “Lost Coastlines” from the just-released Stand Ins.
Not that it really matters. Okkervil has always been and will always be all about lead singer/songwriter Will Sheff. A gangly, awkward sort, he always seems a bit embarrassed to be up on stage until he removes his glasses, leaving the audience a near-sighted blur, and throws himself into the music. The singer songwriter genre may be the most accepting of the non-traditional singing voice (starting with Bob Dylan on) but that has never been an issue for Sheff, he has one of the purest, most lovely voices I’ve heard, perfectly suited for the drama he infuses into his songs. This makes songs like the intense “A Stone” an easy sell. The mellow tunes such as that one that populated the middle of the set may have made for a sleepy interlude for those further back (a friend in the balcony fell asleep), but from our spot near the front of the stage I couldn’t have been more engrossed. And it was only a matter of time before “For Real” and “Westfall” upped the energy level again.
Though I can’t be happier for their increased popularity, they certainly deserve it, I can’t help but think there may come a point when Okkervil gets too popular for me. I can’t imagine seeing a band that I used to see in the tiny Catacombs at a place like the Overture Center where bands like Wilco and Ryan Adams sell several thousand tickets. But for now as long as they keep making records that make me want to see them, I’ll keep going.