Okkervil River: 8 May 2009 – Sydney, Australia

Okkervil River

The Annandale is the last of the truly great pub venues in Sydney: The floors are sticky, the air is stickier, and the band goes on when the TV goes off. If you take a wrong turn when headed to the bathroom you will end up on stage with the hapless support act. This is either a brilliant or horrible state of affairs, depending on how you choose to view it, or perhaps depending on the circumstances you find yourself in. When we went there to see the Melvins last summer I thought I was going to pass out from heat exhaustion, but this gig took place on a cold, wet, and miserable autumn night, with the Annandale providing a perfectly cosy refuge from the elements.

The show was sold out well in advance, and it seems the Church of Okkervil is a broad one, with the young and the old, the trendy and the fashionably untrendy all equally represented. Such a highly literate band was bound to attract an audience that like the sound of their own voices, but I was shocked by the extent to which some concertgoers could keep up their inane blather throughout even the most exhilarating musical moments, and it made me wonder why they bothered attending the show. Why pay to go out to a gig, only to spend the entire evening shouting into the ear of your companion? I realize it’s completely pointless complaining about it, but I can always hope that they see this when they are forced online to read reviews of the show, because god knows they can’t have heard very much of it on the night.

Thankfully the worst offenders, at least of those in my vicinity, walked out as the band started up “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe”, which was lucky because I was on the verge of trying to glass them with my plastic beer mug. From the time they left, the show was clear sailing, and I was able to focus exclusively on the brilliance emanating from the stage. And there was no doubt about it, the band put on one hell of a show. Halfway through “Our Life…” drummer Travis Nelsen had been fired and rehired for excessive soloing, and by the time the song came to its crashing conclusion, guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo was out of the band too.

This was all in jest, of course, because frontman Will Scheff is nothing if not self-deprecating. Throughout the night he was constantly casting aspersions on the band’s professionalism, all the while serving up one of the tightest and most emotionally wired performances I have seen in some time, all of which is a large part of the charm of this band for me. Given the nature of their material and the traditionally po-faced genre within which they operate, they could so easily have taken themselves incredibly seriously and bored the shit out of all and sundry. That they didn’t is all the more credit to the very professionalism that Scheff constantly brought into question.

Notably absent from their set was their classic “The President’s Dead”, but on reflection maybe this was apt. It’s as though the song has been put to rest with the passing of the Bush administration, and perhaps lines like “He was a good man, you can’t argue with that / Not today you can’t, not now you can’t” lose their acerbic bite when set against the background of Obama’s presidency. As a worthy stand-in the band pulled out a cover of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B”, and I was momentarily worried that our friend Daniel, a particularly fervent fan of Brian Wilson, would pass out from an overload of joy.

One thing that Okkervil River did exceptionally well was fall apart. Chords came crashing and droning to the ground like a plane wreck, only to have the next verse coalesce from the remains and send the whole thing soaring again. This motif of rebirth was to reoccur throughout the night, which you could call a trick if you wanted to be nasty, but nevertheless it’s a bloody good trick and one that keeps the crowd aching for more.

It’s no stretch to say that Okkervil River was almost the perfect band for a venue like the Annandale. They were literate without being pretentious, messy but grandiose and deathly serious without losing sight of humour. Even if one of their greatest songs has been made redundant by the changing tides of politics they are a band that have something meaningful to say and are able to perform with a sense of urgency enough to effectively convey it, no matter which way the political winds are blowing.