2016 has clearly been a lousy year for many reasons. Having said that, we’re approaching the time of year when music publications begin planning and compiling their ‘best of’ lists. This may prove just that bit harder this year, but the musical lows we have all experienced have fortunately been eclipsed at times by some spectacular highs, making us all appreciate them when they’ve come around. One such highlight arrived at the start of the year when Shearwater toured in support of their incredible record Jet Plane and Oxbow. Their Manchester show was a thrilling tour-de-force full of drama and pathos, particularly when Jonathan Meiburg paid his respects to the late, great David Bowie with a couple of inspired covers at the end of the gig. Fast-forward nine months and Okkervil River, a band with Shearwater connections oddly enough, have eased their way on to my ‘best of’ list with their own triumph of a performance, once again including an incredible cover of another vitally influential artist that we have sadly lost this week.
The band has undergone a recent personnel transformation for the latest record Away, but the focal point is still Will Sheff’s sprawling narratives and the evening’s foundations are built around the best tracks from this release. The record definitely feels different to previous releases. It has a more improvised quality about it and this certainly translates impressively this evening, with many songs possessing jazz-like, extemporaneous moments which deliver unexpected moments of joy.
First track this evening Okkervil River R.I.P seems to emphasise these shifts in approach and is a dramatic, slow-burning sonnet from Will Sheff, possibly reflecting his feelings about the changes in the band. Call Yourself Renee follows. The track was apparently written on psylocibin mushrooms and you can tell! The jazzy introduction develops inventively until Sheff’s warm vocals are added to this heady mix of sweeping tones and evocative imagery. It may be cold outside but the delightfully hypnotic textures of this complex song manage to keep us all warm.
Will Sheff’s innovative transmogrification has had an impact on the way songs from other albums are presented as well and Unless it Kicks is a significant case in point. The track comes from the excellent album The Stage Names and is a gloriously brisk rock and roller on record. Not tonight though! The stirring riff has gone and is replaced by more ominous keys and hushed vocals that completely transform the song’s impact. The album was released in 2007 and this approach possibly made sense to Sheff a decade ago. In these volatile times, the reinvention of the song in this manner completely makes sense.
Mary on a Wave and Girl in Port provide lovely, warm moments that cosset and caress in the most satisfying manner, and it becomes clear that Sheff has surrounded himself with an incredibly eclectic bunch of musicians who clearly get his raison d’etre. Sarah Pedinotti provides lush vocals on the former, along with her avant garde style on keys throughout and Benjamin Lazar Davis is an impressively animated addition on the stand up bass, which comes complete with it’s own shirt! Judey on the Street follows and is simply stunning. An extended retune accompanies Cully Symington’s metronomic intro, contributing to a delicious sense of anticipation as the song’s canvas swells. Sheff throws his compelling vocals into this musical stew pot, a cross between The Cure’s Robert Smith and The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, and the song bursts into life, flowing like a river towards an ocean of colour and emotion.
Down Down the Deep River is the only track from 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium performed this evening, but it’s a remarkable song performed with an exhilarating passion that quickly recedes during the introduction to the next song. This is because Sheff communicates his bewilderment at the American election result which he admits was particularly discombobulating now that the tour has reached its conclusion and the realisation that he has to return home has sunk in. Clearly emotional, he also confirms that the death of Leonard Cohen has turned an already shitty week into a completely abysmal one. An immaculate performance of So Long, Marianne follows and the crowd harmoniously sing along to the chorus with great aplomb proving that whatever is going on the world, a great song crosses boundaries, it can be an elixir helping to balance all our apprehensions and make everything seem alright again. This is what Okkervil River achieved in Manchester this evening. A performance fit for any end of year list.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto