Sunday, April 13, 2008

Okkervil River--Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington, Indiana

The timing of this show was a bit inopportune: The NCAA men's basketball final was the same night, and it's Little 500 week in Bloomington, meaning that the kids say, "Fuck it all," and party from Sunday to Sunday. However, I didn't think there would be much overlap among fanbases, but I may have been wrong--the balcony at Buskirk-Chumley was strikingly empty for a band as acclaimed as Okkervil River.

Bloomington's own Kentucky Nightmare opened, sporting a two-guitar attack and super-slick drummer. They suffered a bit sound-wise, with the bass overwhelming everything--especially the vocals--a problem they rectified mid-set to reveal some inventive guitar interplay and clever, witty lyrics. They reminded me of There's Nothing Wrong With Love-era Built to Spill, and there's nothing wrong with that. I would see them again.

Howlin Rain, about whom I know nothing, was next, and I admit, I spent almost their entire set in the men's room and then in the beer line (the BBC Belgian Ale was so much better than the warm Heineken. By the time I got back to my seat Howlin Rain were about half-done with their closer, and my friend Mark was sitting there, agitated, head in hand. I asked what's the deal, and he launched a diatribe about how their set was "an exercise in mediocrity" and how he "couldn't concentrate on anything but the singer's bald spot." I think Howlin Rain gave Mark a migraine. Based on what little I saw and heard, I'm not terribly surprised: Howlin Rain struck me as a jam-band tryin not to be jam-band-y. I would not see them again.

Before Okkervil River came on, I was nervous--genuinely nervous. They're one of my favorite bands (after three or four beers I'd argue to anyone that Will Sheff is the greatest songwriter alive), their live show comes very highly recommended, and I had never seen them before, let alone in one of my favorite venues. (Plus, last time I was at Bus-Chum, I almost got into a fight because I "stole" someone's seat at a general admission show. Those dicks just didn't understand the rules: show up together, leave one at a time.) My mind raced. What if it sucks? What if it doesn't live up to the hype? But my trepidation was assuaged almost immediately. Sheff and the rest of the gang--including Charles Bissell of the Wrens, a nice treat--came onstage, full well raimented, and Sheff announced that this was "like, the eighth time we've played Bloomington." I guess that's a lot.

The band commenced with "The President's Dead" and segued into "Black" (to our tape-trading hippie readers: President's Dead > Black) with a couple efficient chord changes, and the concert had legs. Big legs. Big sweaty angry emo legs. Cobbling together a linear set list from this point on is impossible because the band did not break stride and took next to no time between songs for banter, wind-bag-y introductions, to provide provenance, or anything else. (In fact, the only time I remember Sheff directly addressing the crowd, other than to display gratitude, was to say, off-mic, to someone in the pit, "'Unless It's Kicks.' That was called 'Unless It's Kicks.'" Advice: If you're within earshot of the songwriter, know his songs' names.) Suffice it to say, the set was pretty breathlessly amazing, equal parts Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names with a little Golden Dreams and Fall in Love for some color. Highlights included the aforementioned "Black" and "Unless It's Kicks", "John Allyn Smith Sails" (oddly less grand live than on wax), "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" (appropriately grander live than on wax).

The concert's towering centerpiece, however, was Sheff's rendition of "A Stone" (a personal favorite), with slight accompaniment from Bissell and Jonathan Meiburg. When Sheff keened, "And I think that I know the bitter dismay / of a lover who brought fresh bouquets every day / when she turned him away to remember some knave who once gave just one rose, / one day, / years ago", the crowd was rapt, silent. Not a thing could be heard except the floorboards creaking beneath Sheff's well-shod feet--as though the entire audience was holding its breath, hanging on every single utterance, every syllable and strum coming from center stage. Rarely have I witnessed anything as reverent. Eerily, the verse represents the moment: Of all the concerts I'll ever go to, I'm sure that these 30 seconds will stick out as some of the most memorable. Almost on par with "A Stone" was show-closer/murder ballad "Westfall", which saw every band member contributing backing vocals, backed away from their mics, rendering an already haunting song even more haunting.

Random notes:

Bissell is a pretty incredible guitarist in his own band, playing long, winding textural passages that give Wrens songs a high-sheen melancholy (cf. "She Sends Kisses"), and I was curious to see what he would do with Okkervil River's canon. The answer: nothing. He played it straight, and that's perfect--the most respectful thing he could've done.

Okkervil River wins the award for tallest average height. Sheff and bassist Patrick Pestorius are enormous. I saw Pestorius on the sidewalk before the show, and he made me feel small. I'm 6'3".

Speaking of gigantic personages, there was a kid on the floor who was like NQL Contributor Emeritus Jim x 3. Jim is a big, lummoxy, lovable fellow, but this chap made Jim look as graceful and poised as a ballet dancer. I saw him barely keep his balance while dancing shoeless, and lean into a high-five only to get poked in the eye. Poor guy. He appeared to be having fun, though.

Drummer Travis Nelsen looks like James, that character from Saved By the Bell that Zack hired to pose as a Harvard recruiter who only wanted to recruit Jessie in order to make her feel better after Zack scored a 1500 on his SAT and Jessie only got 1200. You remember. It's the one where James's fake mustache kept falling off in Mr. Belding's office--the only genuinely funny SBTB moment aside from when the gang pulled Mr. Carosi into all that mud at the Malibu Sands end-of-summer luau's tug-o-war contest. Oh brother. I'm laughing just thinking about it.

--Brian Herrmann


Alex said...

Only two funny moments in the history of Saved by the Bell? The hell you say. And your facts are a bit off. I don't think Mr. Carosi was pulled into the mud at the big summer end blowout. And it wasn't the entire "gang" that did it but rather just Lisa and Kelly. See, what happened was there was in fact a tug of war and after it was over Mr. Carosi remained holding onto the rope and starting straight ahead like David Puddy (which was really stupid, there was no reason for him to still be holding onto the rope) and then Kelly leaned over to the Lisa this exchange occurs:
Kelly: Hey, Lisa, check out Carosi.
Lisa: Are you thinking what I'm thinking.
Kelly: (nodding with a mischievious smile)
Lisa and Kelly: (simultaneously) 1...2...3...Heave!

Haha, Mr. Carosi's all dirty.

Did they play any BSB Appendix stuff? I love it when they dip into that.

Alex said...

And why weren't you drinking Upland? Traitor.

Jen said...

Hm, yes, I remember the first recounting of that "I nearly got into a fist fight when I stole someone's seat" story. Old news, buddy. You need new Bus-Chum stories.

Brian said...

Look at this--the DC contingent ganging up. I don't get out much, Jen, and Upland wasn't available, Alex. They had a keg of BBC Belgian, and when that ran out, I think the bar manager went to his house and brought back the contents of his fridge. BBC is a local microbrewery as well, so I may have temporarily defected, but I am no traitor!

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