“This is an old song,” says AA Bondy, introducing the next number in his opening set at the third Club UNCUT night at the Borderline. He’s not kidding, either. What I had presumed would be some lost early gem from his back catalogue turns out to be a dark and powerfully brooding version of Blind Willie Johnson’s apocalyptic “John The Revelator”, originally recorded in 1930, which is going back some.
With his deft acoustic finger-picking, wheezing harmonica, tousled charisma and literate songs of warning and distress, Bondy himself also seems like a throwback to another age, a time of Greenwich Village folk singers, protest songs, packed clubs on Bleecker and McDougal Streets, and revolution in the air, as Dylan put it on “Tangled Up In Blue”.
“Black Rain, Black Rain” is as forlorn as its title suggests, “Vice Rag” a blackly hilarious hymn to self-destructive inclinations, whose sentiments are echoed also on “Killed Myself When I Was Young”. Highlight of Bondy’s brief set, however, is, as he tartly describes it, “a song about coming from the Southern states of America that isn’t called, ‘Yes, I Can Read’.” It’s called, in fact, “The Night Comes Rolling In”, a song as fragile and evocative as Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina”. If you want to hear more of Bondy’s songs, his American Hearts album, on Fat Possum, is definitely worth getting.
Tonight was a perfect moment to finally catch Okkervil River, Will Sheff’s blisteringly good Austin six-piece, who won’t too often in the future be playing places as small as this, their career taking some kind of flight with the success in America of last year’s The Stage Names album. When they come back for more dates in November, they’ll be playing the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, but when Sheff stares out at the 200 or so people crammed in the tiny Borderline, I’m sure all he can see already is multitudes, the music Okkervil River are playing certainly big enough for the stadiums they may yet be headed for.
Live, the band are louder, looser, rougher and even more dynamic than on The Stage Names, which itself was a musically thrilling progression from the more quilted textures of Black Sheep Boy, the 2005 album whose songs were partially based on the life of doomed singer-songwriter Tim Hardin.
The latter album is briefly represented tonight, but it’s the wilder stuff from The Stage Names that sets the place on fire, Sheff delivering the delirious verbosity of his songs with an evangelical fervour, lankily reminiscent in his smart back suit of the young T-Bone Burnett wearing one of Ryan Adams’ less successful haircuts. The band, meanwhile, rage behind him with the unfettered aplomb of The Hold Steady, some numbers building to a panoramic sweep redolent of The Arcade Fire, without, I would hasten to add, that band’s occasional drift towards the pompously self-regarding.
The Motown-inspired “A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene” is thrillingly dispatched, Scott Brackett’s cornet to the fore on the song’s irresistible chorus. “Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe” builds like something vintage from the E Street Band’s repertoire, pounding drums at times the only support for Sheff’s vocal implorations, the band then blowing off the roof as they join in the increasingly unhinged instrumental fray, Sheff, both hands gripping his microphone, guitar slung over his shoulder, neck down, now reminiscent of a latter-day Joe Strummer.
On the slower, beautiful “A Girl In Port”, Sheff does something I haven’t seen many performers do at the Borderline, which is reduce the place to respectful, awe-struck silence, even the yahoos at the bar for the moment mute.
“Unless It’s Kicks” – featured recently on Uncut’s Ooh La La covermount – is unbelievably fierce, takes off like something rocket-fuelled, its trajectory a flaming arc, almost out-of-control, Sheff more than ever reminding me of Paul Dano as Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. Even better, the night’s ultimate highlight, in fact, is “John Allyn Smith Sails”, inspired like The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations”, by the suicidal American poet John Berryman, who in the song, as much as life, is an emasculated alcoholic, impatient for death.
“I was breaking in a case of suds at the Brass Rail, a fall-down drunk with his tongue torn out and his balls removed,” Sheff sings, a broken man waiting for the end. “And I knew that my last lines were gone, while, stupidly, I lingered on. . .” The song’s climactic, roaring appropriation of The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” is a stroke of grim genius and here assumes a desperately fearsome momentum, seems wholly disinclined to come to any sort of end, and so doesn’t for what seems some time, all of it unforgettable.
A sensationally good night.