A fine dusting of snow can be very pretty – particularly when viewed from a warm building with perhaps a beverage of choice close at hand. It’s less amusing when standing on a railway station platform watching the trains get later and later – or so late they just get cancelled. Finally travelling into London, the snow and chill of what still felt like winter was replaced with the equally cold but less picturesque chill of a constant icy rain. Appropriate, somehow, with the prospect of Will Sheff showcasing his new solo album of fractured and crystalline folk-tinged indie rock. The sole Okkervil River founder member remaining has branched out now under his own name, and it would seem that this is no temporary state of affairs but is instead the future direction.
The opener for the evening was New Orleans based Julie Odell, who has a line of her own in frail songs that drift over sparse electric guitar accompaniment. At least that would appear to be the case from the one song of the opening set that I managed to catch – but it was warmly received by the packed out crowd at Omeara, a venue which is rapidly becoming the natural London home for artists such as this.
Will Sheff took the stage with his band – lead guitar, drums and bass – sporting an early Seventies Lennon look, linen jacket, long hair, beard and obligatory round lensed glasses, and took his place front of stage behind a keyboard. During the gig he’d swap between this and an acoustic guitar. Quickly launching into ‘Nothing Special‘ the title song from the solo album, this was Sheff at his frailest, nostalgic for starting out on his musical path “We triumphed and we lost / but we knew at any cost /there was treasure we’d claw our way to it” and in part seemingly rejecting the fame of Okkervil River. The sense of intimate folk touched indie rock continued with ‘Estrangement Zone‘ which in itself contains a rejection of any wise saviour status “How come someone as soft as me should have to set the bent world straight?” As if to cap this new identification as himself, Sheff introduced the next song as being a cover song, the perfectly apposite ‘Okkervil River RIP‘ a song which drifts almost imperceptibly from ramshackle folk-rock to an almost hypnotic recitation of musical deaths that came too soon, before a coda that reflects on the redemptive powers of a rock band – any rock band. “Across the rink so I could hear the band / Two guitars, a drummer A chick singer with a Kurzweil On a keyboard stand / And I said, “Play that cover” / I said, “Play that cover song again.”
The slow and intimate feel continued into ‘In the Thick Of It‘ where Sheff asked Julie Odell back on stage to provide backing vocals – a simple enough thing to do one would imagine, but her appearance from the back and clambering onto the stage seemed to throw him for a moment. As she set her mic he took the time to thank her for having been on the tour, but in such a way that it sounded as if he would be glad to see the back of her. Recognising this he tried to extricate himself, but in such a tongue-tied way that he appeared to be doubling down on the initial apparent dig. It was a light moment that a so far very serious gig benefited from. And the somewhat downbeat ‘In the Thick Of It‘ was noticeably lightened by Odell’s additional vocals along with a clearer melodic line that brought to mind Great Lake Swimmers.
‘Black‘ was deconstructed with a simple accompaniment of two acoustic guitars – all the Bright Eyes like anger remained as Sheff wandered the stage front with just a microphone, but it was toned down into a slow and gentle folk song which makes lyrics like “And I tell you, like before, you should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours” all the more effective in their plaintive anger.
Not that everything was soft and seemingly gentle, even if the claws were just hidden. ‘The Spiral Season‘ was nothing short of anthemic, building from a quiet opening to blistering guitar and powering drumming. Quite awesome, a trick which was repeated, after the slower family recollection of ‘Holy Man’, on the truly fist punching ‘Like the Last Time‘ which embraces layers of fuzzed up guitar – Sheff is an inveterate pedal adjuster – with a gloriously life affirming declaration to not make the same mistakes again. It makes a perfect segue into the so appropriately linked ‘Down, Down the Deep River‘ with its sense of loss and of things being “Not all right not even close to all right” which closes out with a very Crazy Horse whig out. We’d travelled a long way from the opening intimacy. The set closer of ‘So Come Back, I Am Waiting‘ was met with an appropriate amount of rapture.
The three song encore was all Okkervil River – a stripped back sung from the keyboard, ‘For Real‘, a sway inducing ‘Plus Ones‘ and a victorious ‘No Key, No Plan‘ with its unambiguous statement “There is no key, there’s no plan; I discovered that. / And, truly, I don’t think you’ll find a happier man” which ended just after Sheff quit the stage. A brief pause to wonder if he would wander back again, so perfunctory had been the leave taking, but no, it was house lights.
How many bands is Will Sheff / Okkervil River? – that’s the question that remains as one files back out into the cold rain. This simple four piece can change from folk rock to Connor Oberst like angry bedroom confessional to delicate acoustic folk and then with a flick of switch become a full on anthemic rock band. It’s not a derivative sound though, it’s more a truly multi-faceted musicality that not only knows when to up the tempo or slow down the frenetic pace but can make theses changes close to seamlessly – direct seguing from one song to another is a hallmark of the band, with Sheff diving to his pedals to reset levels and effects to achieve it. So the question remains – how many bands is this group and the answer really is too soon to say for sure, more viewing necessary, and preferably within the shortest time possible.