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September 30, 2007

Lit-rockers Okkervil River put on new suits to match new album

Okkervil River’s lead singer and songwriter, Will Sheff, often appears particularly bleary-eyed on stage. In interviews, Sheff has said that he takes off his glasses when he performs so that he can’t actually see his audience. Though this may not be a good thing (if Sheff can’t see the edge of the stage, for example), it does make him different. Sheff is quite aware of this fact—when he performs, he’s a performer.

Okkervil River are a self-reported “mid-level band.” They’ve been in existence for about 10 years, releasing well wrought albums and touring around the world. Until 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, the band was generally regarded as just another lit-rock band (they’re named after a short story by Russian writer Tatyana Tolstoya, and their albums are filled with characters who quote poetry, cite Psalms, and speak like they’re in Cheever stories). When Black Sheep Boy came out, however, Okkervil River evolved into something a little bit different. Aside from being lit-rockers, they were master craftsmen in a band that wrote and performed long narratives about characters, symbols, and people. Black Sheep Boy is about victimization and abuse, but it’s also very much about love and passion. The record was well received, and Okkervil River’s already enamored fans became even more excited by the band. In the current music community, however, having a handful of passionate fans means that you have to keep touring, and touring, and touring. That’s the reality of making a living on music.

When Okkervil River played at Logan Square Auditorium on September 18 it was something of a triumph. Logan Square, with its large balcony and bad acoustics, was the biggest venue the band has played in Chicago; the show was sold out. Okkervil River recently released a new album, The Stage Names, which abandons the conceit of literary characters and victims for a different kind of persona—the persona of a touring band. The record was significantly more hyped than their previous releases, although questionably so. There are only nine songs, and while the album is crafted well and has better musicianship, it is markedly different than the band’s previous work. Its concerns, it seems, are smaller.

The audience at Logan Square was excited even after an awkward performance by opener Damien Jurado. But when the band took the stage, there was something different about them. Whereas Okkervil River usually appears in jeans and flannel (as many bands from Austin, Texas do), they were decked out this evening. Every member wore a suit, including bumbling, bleary Sheff and drummer Travis Nelsen. The band was taking the whole “stage persona” thing awfully literally. While the show opened with the tongue-in-cheek song from The Stage Names, “Plus Ones,” the band were still clearly playing with all of their heart. And by the encore, Sheff had removed his jacket and his button-up shirt. One got the sense when the lights came up that by separating themselves from their audience by putting on the outfits, Okkervil River had missed, rather than clarified, something about themselves.

Despite the fact that they were promoting The Stage Names, Okkervil River played a balanced set with songs from all of their recent albums. Most of the band members have played together since they were in high school, and this set saw some different arrangements of songs that are several years old. This kind of re-imagining can be important, and the band members seemed as enthused as ever. By keeping the songs fresh and full of passion and introducing their improved musicianship, Okkervil showed their oldest fans that they weren’t abandoning their past and got their newest fans interested in what had come before. Not that this is always the case—a group of rowdy 20-something men behind us yelled, “Will you play our frat party?” several times during the set. While that might be an interesting performance (really!), contrasting the rowdy boys with the earnest fans who’ve listened to the band for years is a telling exercise.

Okkervil River finished their regular set with a version of album closer “John Allyn Smith Sails,” a meditation on the poet John Berryman, who committed suicide in 1972. The song has roots in the Beach Boys and articulates desperation and art in a touching but scary way. In it, Sheff assumes Berryman’s voice and is backed up by the band, including keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg, whose haunting vocals deserve more use in Okkervil River tracks.

The song differs from most on The Stage Names because it allows Sheff to adopt a character that is not his own. He is not a “mid-level” singer reaching out towards an audience that he can’t see. He’s something similar, yet different, and it’s that difference that keeps the audience paying attention to the band.