Will Sheff seems tickled to be playing a venue called Heaven and the sticky-floored reality of the subterranean space does little to dent his good mood. This is, Sheff says, Okkervil River‘s first full length gig after an age of promotional duties; they’ve performed little snips and bits here and there, but they haven’t done a show of this length in a while. The sense of relief and release is palpable, though there is a sense of feet-finding in the opening few songs and a couple of false starts; Sheff urges his audience to spot the errors.
They kick things off with The Valley, the opening track of their new album I Am Very Far. Though the album shares a number of thematic preoccupations with its predecessors, it’s more musically divergent (and less lyrically intricate), something this song encapsulates with its persistent percussion and talk of the ‘rock ‘n’ roll dead’.
A good part of the set is drawn from the new release: White Shadow Waltz goes down particularly well but the subtler creep of Piratess (a reworking of an older song, Murderess) doesn’t appear to grab people in quite the same way; or at least this is when a good chunk of people in front of me make their break for the bar. The band also mine their last but one album, The Stage Names, and play a few tracks from Black Sheep Boy including a stripped down and compelling version of A Stone, arguably one of their most beautiful and lyrically rich songs.
Initially a tad overdressed in brown jacket and sweater, Sheff is eventually obliged to cast off this bookish uniform, and by the time he gets to John Allyn Smith Sails, with its closing swoop into Sloop John B, he’s down to his shirt. It says something about both Okkervil River and their fans that one of their most crowd-pleasing songs of the evening is one inspired by John Berryman’s suicide plunge from the Washington Avenue Bridge.
With a strictly enforced venue curfew, a three minute time limit and men in Hi-Vis jackets prowling the back of the room, they return on stage to play, not the promised quarter of an hour ramble of a track, but Unless It’s Kicks, a rousing song made all the more rousing by Sheff’s enthusiasm as he urges the crowd to celebrate their presence in heaven and share with him this one joyous moment before we’re abruptly dispatched into the night and the clot of Villiers Street. Sheff may be all too aware he’s playing a game, playing a role, but, boy, does he play it well.