live review

Okkervil River

Okkervil River

February 16 2014
Kings Arms Tavern, Auckland

Reviewed by Paul Larsen
17th February 2014

Put it down to being the tail end of a busy weekend in Auckland, or even just the inconvenience of a Sunday night fixture but the local crowd that filled up the King's Arms in time for Okkervil River's second NZ show seem relaxed to the point of weary by the time the band take the stage at 10pm. No sooner had the alt-country stalwarts collected their instruments and begun tuning up however, that front-man Will Sheff took exception to some particularly dire intro music and calls for a do-over. The eccentric songwriter calls the band back off stage, strides to the sound desk to select a suitable alternative intro track and the band do it all again. It's a strange beginning to what is ultimately an intriguing show.

Returning to our shores in support of their seventh record, The Silver Gymnasium , Okkervil River have a reputation for passionate and precise live shows but the recent success of that record adds an extra weight of expectation to these performances. Released last year to critical acclaim and the band's greatest level of commercial success, the concept record based around Sheff's formative years in Meriden, New Hampshire has introduced the band to a raft of new fans. Although it's certainly more accessible than the bands early alt-country roots, The Silver Gymnasium is undeniably typical of the band's storytelling sound, and it's fitting in a way that Sheff and friends had to look to their past to reach the next stage of their career.

Vaguely resembling the puppet form of Jarvis Cocker as he flits and darts about the stage, Sheff is full of banter throughout the evening. Self deprecating and somewhat awkward, he insists on acknowledging mistakes and calling out the awkward silences that fall between songs early in the set ("Please reserve your applause for the end of our careers"). Early tracks ‘It Was My Season’ and ‘On a Balcony’ from The Silver Gymnasium are warmly received but it isn't until ‘Black’ from 2005's Black Sheep Boy that the room begins to loosen up and the increased tempo begins to pull the crowd into the performance.

A soaring, dream-like version of 'Pink Slip's' showcases the band's ability to tweak and enhance their songs as does a belligerently wild version of 'John Allyn Smith Sails' from 2007's popular release The Stage Names. Sheff is lively and passionate throughout these highlights but when the band withdraw mid-set to allow an acoustic interlude, it's a more sombre and personal Sheff that delivers stripped back takes of 'You Past Life as a Blast' and 'Song of Our So Called Friend'. The latter delivered as a captivating package of dynamic volume and pace.

By now, the previously reserved audience are invested completely and guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo, who is instrumental in keeping the momentum going appears to thoroughly enjoy her chance to cut loose on later songs 'For Real' and 'Lost Coastlines'. The popular 'Down Down the Deep River' keeps the crowd swaying before the evening is brought to a close with the shouted chorus of 'Unless it Kicks', punctuated by passionate pleas from Sheff to "get in the moment!" The crowd happily oblige and are still in that moment as Sheff slips off stage in and into the night with a smile.



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