Uncut Editor's Diary
Okkervil River Rock The Scala
There were so many people packed last night into the Scala to see Okkervil River that if I’d arrived any later, I probably would have had to watch the show from across the street, on the concourse of King’s Cross Station.
As it is, by the time the band came on to a throaty roar from a rowdy crowd, I’m pinned by a press of bodies to a wall at the back for much of what follows, all of which is great. They get off to a surprisingly subdued start, though, I should tell you that. The sound’s a little too low, not the crisp wallop a song like “A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene” surely demands.
There are niggling technical problems on more than a few subsequent occasions, in fact, which Will Sheff copes with admirably, his exasperation showing through only in flashes when some people in his position may have thrown a complete hissy fit or been tempted to storm off in an attention-seeking strop.
It’s unfortunate, though, that the one song that’s most effected is usually the show-stopping “John Allyn Smith Sails” with its now-famous – among Okkervil fans, anyway – appropriation of “Sloop John B”.
It starts fantastically, with Sheff’s vivid spoken description, a kind of speed rap over frantically strummed guitar, of the song’s subject, the great American poet John Berryman, walking through a college campus to the bridge in Minneapolis from which he jumped to his death (Craig Finn tells the same story in The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations”).
Unfortunately, the sight of guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo and a harassed technician trying to get Lauren’s guitar to work and in the process wrapping themselves up in endless lengths of leads and wires is, while a moment of high comedy, something of a distraction for both the rest of the band and at least one member of the audience, namely me.
It’s quickly forgotten, though, in all the surrounding excitement and great music. Most of the set’s taken from the band’s last two albums, The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins and includes early on a very sharp version of the venomous “Singer Songwriter”, a lovely, drifting “Girl In Port” and a riotous “Pop Lie”. As it did last year at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Will’s mostly solo version of “A Stone”, from Black Sheep Boy, that brings the place to an absolute standstill, everyone for a moment hushed, taking a moment to recover when finally, after what seems like at least 10 minutes, it’s over, some lovely playing by Gurgiolo taking it out.
The next 30 minutes or so are a non-stop blast, with “Lost Coastlines” followed by “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” and, inevitably, “Unless It’s Kicks”, which ends with Sheff doing his hillbilly preacher thing – “Show me your hands!” – and generally looking wild and transported.
We’re by now at that point in the show where people are shouting out for songs they’re afraid won’t otherwise get played – a chap a few feet away from me makes me laugh out loud when after much nervous throat-clearing finally pipes up with a request for the cheerfully-titled “The War Criminal Rises And Speaks”. In the evnt, we get the witty “Plus Ones”, a beautiful “Last Love Song For Now”, from The Black Sheep Boy Appendix and the whole thing ends with the Appalachian hymnal of “Westfall” with Guglio on trilling mandolin and everyone coming on like one of The Carter Family.