Will Sheff seems tickled to be playing a venue called Heaven and thesticky-floored reality of the subterranean space does little to dent hisgood mood. This is, Sheff says, Okkervil River’s first full length gig afteran age of promotional duties; they’ve performed little snips and bits hereand there, but they haven’t done a show of this length in a while. The senseof relief and release is palpable, though there is a sense of feet-finding inthe opening few songs and a couple of false starts; Sheff urges his audience tospot the errors.
They kick things off with The Valley, the opening track of their newalbum I Am Very Far. Though the album shares a number of thematicpreoccupations with its predecessors, it’s more musically divergent (andless lyrically intricate), something this song encapsulates with itspersistent percussion and talk of the ‘rock and roll dead’. A good part ofthe set is drawn from the new release: White Shadow Waltz goes downparticularly well but the subtler creep of Piratess (a reworking of an oldersong, Murderess) doesn’t appear to grab people in quite the same way; or atleast this is when a good chunk of people in front of me make their breakfor 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 andcompelling version of A Stone, arguably one of their most beautiful andlyrically rich songs.
Initially a tad overdressed in brown jacket and sweater, Sheff iseventually obliged to cast off this bookish uniform, and by the time he getsto John Allyn Smith Sails, with its closing swoop into Sloop John B, he’sdown to his shirt. It says something about both Okkervil River and theirfans that one of their most crowd-pleasing songs of the evening is oneinspired by John Berryman’s suicide plunge from the Washington AvenueBridge.
With a strictly enforced venue curfew, a three minute time limit and menin Hi-Vis jackets prowling the back of the room, they return on stage toplay, not the promised quarter of an hour ramble of a track, but Unless It’sKicks, a rousing song made all the more rousing by Sheff’s enthusiasm as heurges the crowd to celebrate their presence in heaven and share with himthis one joyous moment before we’re abruptly dispatched into the night andthe 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.