Frank YangEveryone’s heard the old adage about how life is like a river, ever-changing, and in the case of Austin’s Okkervil River, it’s especially apt. The faces that make up the band have changed repeatedly over the years – singer-songwriter Will Sheff being the only real constant over their 14-year existence – and they’ve had their share of stylistic and thematic shifts over that time, albeit while hewing closely to the path marked folk-rock. And so it’s fitting that following their most rangy and experimental album in 2011’s aptly-titled I Am Very Far, they’d return to their roots – or the river to its source – with The Silver Gymnasium.
After Far‘s short story songbook, Gymnasium returns to the overarching album theme with a literary angle built around the memoir, focusing on Sheff’s ’80s youth in the small town of Meriden, New Hampshire. With that shift comes a musical realignment of sorts, with the more darker, exploratory sonics of Far put aside for a strummier sound with synth accents, perhaps meant to reflect the radio pop of the era or just draw in more listeners; in either case, these are the most accessible-sounding tunes Okkervil has turned out, right alongside the Stage Names/Stand-Ins set. The material may not be of the strata – at this point, time may well show that the years spanning Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names to be the band’s creative pinnacle – it’s a solid collection that reflects the Okkervil River that most of their fans know and love best. And with it, Okkervil returned to town on Saturday night for their first Toronto show since June 2011.
The support slot for the tour marked another achievement in a year of highlights for 22-year old Nashville-based newcomer Mackenzie Scott who, when onstage, answers to Torres. She self-released her self-titled debut in January and since then, with the help of endorsements from the likes of Sharon Van Etten, has gotten to the point where her presence on the bill constituted an actual draw. Fronting a powerful yet tasteful rhythm section, Scott’s set was built around distorted fingerpicking and raw, snarled vocals that reared up to feedback-laden, combat boot-stomping rock heights in the opening and closing numbers. Those who like their confessional singer-songwriter material with some teeth, both lyrically and musically, would be impressed.
A consequence of the earlier comment that Okkervil may have already hit their creative and critical peak a few albums back was the fact that this show was decidedly not sold out, but not being a buzz band doesn’t mean that your real fanbase is any less solid or devoted; so while those in attendance might have had a little more elbow room than in the past, their enthusiasm was hardly diminished. The Silver Gymnasium‘s one-two of “It Was My Season” and “On A Balcony” opened things up before giving way to a Black Sheep Boy‘s still-powerful “For Real” and “Black”, setting the tone for the rest of the set – a solid showing from the new record but plenty of attention to the back catalog, with only Down The River Of Golden Dreams being omitted entirely and with The Stage Names being leaned on for the show-stopping moments.
The current lineup of Okkervil, which underwent a sea change with the last record, sounded more cohesive than on the Far tour. Lead guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo’s style of guitar now better integrated into the songs in the way that it took Nels Cline a little bit to properly sound part of Wilco, and the sound of the band has adjusted accordingly with the focus alternating between Sheff’s vocals to Gurgiolo’s leads rather than the Okkervil orchestra as a whole, or maybe it just seemed this was as I was parked directly in Gurgiolo’s amp’s line of fire. Also in the “things that are different” department was Sheff’s taking the stage not in one of his signature sport coats but a leather jacket, now looking more the part of student than professor. The glasses still only lasted half the energetic and sweaty set, though, so reality wasn’t that altered. And though Jonathan Meiburg officially left the band five years ago, his vocal presence is still missed – particularly since his harmonies still appear on the records. It was a nice nod to the Okkervil of old, though, when mid-show the band left just Sheff and bassist Patrick Pestorius, the other longest-serving member of the band, to play “No Key, No Plan” acoustically.
The thing that struck me the most over the course of the show was how I’d forgotten how much I loved this band not that long ago. From 2005 to 2008 or so, they were one of the outfits in the heaviest rotation possible and somehow, unnoticed, they or I drifted away. And while those days probably aren’t coming back – despite said I would be thrilled if there was another masterpiece rattling around in Will Sheff’s head – this show was an hour-forty reminder of those times. And isn’t The Silver Gymnasium all about remembering days past?
Photos: Okkervil River, Torres @ The Phoenix – September 28, 2013
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”
Stream: Torres – “Honey”
Video: Okkervil River – “Your Past Life As A Blast”
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”
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