Monday, June 13th, 2011
I Am Very Far
Okkervil River, Titus Andronicus and Future Islands at The Phoenix in Toronto
Frank YangOkkervil River are probably pretty comfortable at the Phoenix now, this past Friday marking the band’s third straight show at the Toronto venue. But each visit was in a slightly different context – Spring 2008 as support for The New Pornographers, that same October marking their first swing at headlining the 1000-capacity room – and this show would be the gauge as to whether they had outgrown that scale venue and would be moving onto bigger stages. And indeed, the did sell it out but not without the help of a pretty impressive undercard.
Leading off was Baltimore trio Future Islands, who’d been getting attention at a pretty steady rate since the release of their second album In Evening Air last Spring. I can’t comment on the “post-wave” scene of which they’re apparently a part of, but what I saw was three regular joe-looking dudes taking the stage in a synth/bass/vocals configuration and while the former two went about their business in an understated manner, vocalist Sam Herring turned into a fascinating model of a frontman. Stalking and/or prowling the stage like a jungle gorilla, hes was all chest-slapping, arm-flailing and face-grabbing antics and yet carried himself with an odd sort of stateliness. The musical side was just as odd/interesting, coupling a distinctly glammy take on early ’80s post-punk vibe with vocals that were at times gutteral and others almost theatrically dramatic. I can’t say how much I really liked it but it was definitely interesting, and these days interesting goes a long way.
I’ll go see Okkervil River each and every time they come to town, whatever the room, but I won’t lie – having Titus Andronicus on the bill made this show extra exciting, being one of the bands that could easily steal a show out from anyone. Their show at Sneaky Dee’s in April 2010 still goes down in my books as one of the most intense and chaotic live music experiences in recent memory, and while it was slightly more controlled when I saw them later that summer at Pitchfork, it was clear that of all the club-level bands getting their moment on a big festival stage that weekend, Titus Andronicus were one of the few ready to deserve it.
This would be the band’s fourth show in Toronto in just over a year, each one was a sell out and rowdy as hell, but this was their first in a room larger than The Horseshoe and I’m sure Patrick Stickles was happy to finally be on stage high enough that he wouldn’t have to worry about fans falling or getting flung onto his pedalboard. And I was happy that there’d probably be less of a concentration of their own fans and I might get to enjoy their set without worrying quite as much about getting kicked in the head. And indeed, their set had less of the bedlam of past performances but it’s important to note that as their show went on and converts to the unrelenting lessons in history, rock and rage as documented on The Monitor were made, the chaos steadily increased – thankfully mostly on the other side of the room from me. This allowed me to note that the sonic mix had shifted somewhat from when I saw them last, working a little more piano into the mix and coming across with less punk fury and more rock’n’roll fun. Goodness knows guitarist/violinist Amy Klein was having fun up there – whether pogoing around the stage or going foot-on-monitor for some riffing, she was a ridiculous amount of fun to watch, and it’s not hard to imagine that before too long it will be her and her bandmates headlining rooms this size.
But for this night, the stage still belonged to Okkervil River. I noted in my review of their latest effort I Am Very Far that the band had shed some of the refinement that marked The Stage Names/The Stand Ins in favour of a more sonically adventurous approach and indeed, that aesthetic shift carried over to the live show. I’d commented in my writeup of their last Phoenix show that the band were simply too good now to recapture the anarchic spirit that marked some of thier earlier shows and while that’s still technically true, they took a pretty good shot at it.
Whereas the last few shows had been about how in control of their formidable musical powers Okkervil River now were, this time out there was again the sense of overreaching just enough to feel unpredictable. Sure there was the fact that Will Sheff was knocking over mic stands while roaming around the stage, but he’s always done that; what was new were some noisier indulgences like a mic dedicated to heavy echo effects for him to randomly sing into, the introduction of synths for extra aural chaos, extra-ripping guitar solos from Lauren Gurgiolo, to say nothing of the synchronized hand clap/finger snap dance moves with her and Sheff in “Piratess”. Rather than simply play a show, there was a sense that they wanted to put on a show.
Whichever it was, the net result was a terrific show drawing from all their records from Black Sheep Boy forward in the expected proportions and with power substituted for some of the precision. The enthused – and tone-deaf, judging from the singalongs – audience may have helped contribute to the atmosphere, but proved to be a bit of a problem when Sheff went solo and acoustic for “A Stone”, proving you can’t rowdy up a crowd and then ask them to hush up when you need it. Old school fans got their fix with the encore as they went all the way back to Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See for “Westfall” before closing with the raucous, everyone-pleasing “Unless It Kicks”. Without a breakthrough hit or some other trajectory-altering event, it’s unlikely that Okkervil River’s next return to Toronto will see them graduating to the next tier of venue – that’d be the twice as large Kool Haus – but as long as they continue to play the Phoenix stage, they will continue to own it.
Will Sheff shares some thoughts on lyrics with Magnet in his capacity as producer for Bird Of Youth, who were playing guest editor of their website last week. The Wall Street Journal also has a talk with him about his current digs of Brooklyn, New York.
Photos: Okkervil River, Titus Andronicus, Future Islands @ The Phoenix – June 10, 2011
MP3: Okkervil River – “Wake And Be Fine”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Mermaid”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Lost Coastlines”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”
MP3: Okkervil River – “The President’s Dead”
MP3: Okkervil River – “No Key, No Plan”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Black”
MP3: Okkervil River – “It Ends With A Fall”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Kansas City”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Listening To Otis Redding At Home During Christmas”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Red”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Westfall”
MP3: Titus Andronicus – “A More Perfect Union”
MP3: Titus Andronicus – “Four Score And Seven” (Part One)
MP3: Titus Andronicus – “Four Score And Seven” (Part Two)
MP3: Titus Andronicus – “Titus Andronicus”
MP3: Future Islands – “Tin Man”
MP3: Future Islands – “Walking Through That Door”
Video: Okkervil River – “Wake And Be Fine”
Video: Okkervil River – “Lost Coastlines”
Video: Okkervil River – “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”
Video: Okkervil River – “Girl In Port”
Video: Okkervil River – “For Real”
Video: Titus Andronicus – “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future”
Video: Titus Andronicus – “A More Perfect Union”
Video: Titus Andronicus – “Titus Andronicus”
Video: Future Islands – “Tin Man”
After a couple years apart, Two Gallants are back together and will be at The Drake Underground on September 9, tickets $15 in advance.
Active Child – aka Los Angeleno Pat Grossi – will release his debut album You Are All I See on August 23 and follow it up with touring which includes a September 14 date at The Garrison. Tickets for the show are $12 in advance.
Pitchfork, The New Zealand Herald and The Australian have interviews with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, whose new album Bon Iver, Bon Iver – making it technically not self-titled, just redundant – is out June 20. They play The Sound Academy on August 9.