Gig Review: Okkervil River @ The Forum, 14th October

Last night Okkervil River played one of the most powerful, intense, and captivating gigs I have ever witnessed to an enthralled sold-out crowd at Melbourne’s idyllic Forum venue. Quite simply, it’s hard to imagine a show much better.

Opening proceedings was a strange semi-speech from a representative of the Melbourne Festival, the people responsible for bringing Okkervil River to Australia, followed by a set from Melbourne band Roller One. They played music a little bit unlike anything I’ve heard before- ‘ambient folk’ is the best way I can think to describe it.

Roller One’s music was sparse and desolate, centered around a double bass, an acoustic guitar, and lead singer Fergus McAlpin’s deep dark and intimate voice. There was something very special about their music, at once very unassuming and very powerful, however there was no escaping the fact that they were just not well suited to playing as a support act.

Their music relies heavily on atmosphere, and the atmosphere for a support act is never fantastic, especially when that support act plays music that doesn’t exactly demand the crowd’s undivided attention. There were a few more triumphant moments of Roller One’s set, such as when extra musicians joined the duo on stage to add a bit of depth to their sound, but overall the crowd’s interest seemed like it was elsewhere.

This being said I did enjoy Roller One’s set, and can imagine that they may be pretty awesome at a more intimate venue and as a headline act. 

Given the intricate nature of Okkervil River’s stage setup, the turnover between acts was remarkably short, and in what seemed like no time at all Okkervil River were walking onto the stage to the sound of raptuous applause from the venue, which was thankfully completely packed, just like the band’s music deserves. Wasting no time at all they broke into a series of four songs without speaking a single word, and my god what a four songs they were.

First up was Wake And Be Fine, the lead single from the band’s latest album, ‘I Am Very Far’. It is a shambolic, rollicking song, much more in line with older Okkervil River jams than some of the other material on ‘I Am Very Far’. Live the band simply tore into the track, as it passed in a blur, lasting for what seemed like thirty seconds. Before the audience had even finished applauding the conclusion of the opening number, the beginning to one of the band’s many classic tracks, For Real, was echoing through the theater. You don’t need me to tell you that it is an incredibly powerful song, as the restrained choruses lead into those euphoric and slightly violent choruses that had the entire crowd screaming and singing at the same time.

Rider provided another taste of the band’s latest album, but yet again a subsequent older track stole the moment, this time in the form of Black. It was utterly perfect; an impeccable live song. Driven in equal measures by Will Sheff’s vocals and a pulsing backing riff, the song brought The Forum to light, both figuratively and literally, as it was at this point that some form of disco ball sprung into life and covered the ceiling with bright patches of light, contrasting brilliantly with the dark mood lighting in the rest of the theater.

It was only after the first four songs that Will Sheff spoke his first words to the crowd, but it didn’t matter: by that point he had already completely won over every single person in the Forum. He is the best frontman that I have ever seen. He demanded the undivided attention of the entire crowd, simply owning the venue for the duration of Okkervil River’s set. He was introspective and restrained when his music called for it, but was also energetic and dominating when it was needed. Above everything else though he was completely and utterly charming, in everything that he said and did. I’m struggling to adequately describe what was so special about Sheff as a musician, but everything that he did just seemed to have an intangible sense of ‘genuineness’ to it.  Not only was he the perfect frontman, he seemed like a genuinely lovely man.

The middle portion of Okkervil River’s set was mostly dominated by songs from ‘I Am Very Far’. That’s fine, because it’s a great album, but personally I would have liked to see the band’s set divided more equally among all their studio work. This is a trivial complaint however, because the band’s newer songs were still fantastic in their own right, none more so than We Need A Myth, my personal favourite from ‘I Am Very Far’. No Key, No Plan was a surprise and very welcome inclusion in the set, as most of the band left the stage, leaving only Will and bassist Patrick Pestorius. Their rendition of the song was haunting and beautiful, especially the lyric of “I’m doing what I really like and getting paid for it”. 

While most of the crowd was fantastic (and mad props to the girls who had Okkervil River lyrics written all over their clothes), there were also a few real dickheads. It just made no sense to me: who gets smashed and comes to an Okkervil River show? They were incredibly annoying, and the hatred for them was just radiating off everyone on the barrier as they yelled loudly during the quieter songs and did all other kinds of annoying things. I did enjoy the plan of the people next to me, which was, I believe, to “grab them by the balls and drag them out”. Unfortunately the plan did not come to fruition. 

John Allyn Smith Sails still has one of the best introductions that I have ever heard to a song, as the entire crowd sung along with Will Sheff: “By the second verse, dear friends, my head will burst, my life will end, so I’d like to start this one off by saying live and love”. The climax of the song was particularly memorable, as the crowd joined Sheff for what felt almost like a pirate shanty, singing along and clapping as loudly as we possibly could. Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe was wonderful, as the stage lights dimmed and the backdrop glowed brightly, silhouetting the figure of Will Sheff as he guided the crowd through a complicated clapping rhythm, his hands outstretched towards the ceiling as the crowd followed his lead, temporarily filling the Forum with raised arms and the deafening sound of clapping.

‘The Stand Ins’ had been oddly ignored for the majority of Okkervil River’s set, however the final song of their main set was Lost Coastlines. Enough said. It was absolutely sublime, as Patrick and Will shared lead vocals and Lauren Gurgiolo absolutely killed it on banjo (the song had even been preceeded by something of a hoedown with Lauren and Will). Lost Coastlines was an energetic beast of a song, with plenty of clapping and singing, especially to the “la la la la” chorus, which was belted out with enthusiasm by everyone towards the front, almost drowning out the band. At the conclusion of the song Okkervil River departed the stage to enthusiastic applause, but the best was yet to come.

Returning to the stage after a very brief encore break, a genuine smile crossed the face of Will Sheff. With all sincerity he said that he had had a beautiful night with us all, and he really did seem genuinely delighted at the response Okkervil River’s music had received. There’s something very special about seeing a man as intense and as passionate as Will Sheff so purely happy. Displaying their eclectic music taste, Okkervil River began their encore with a cover of a Triffids track, Hometown Farewell Kiss. Even though I wasn’t familiar with the source material it was still a thoroughly enjoyable rendition.

What came next was a moment that I had been waiting for for the better part of six years. Westfall. It has been one of my favourite songs for such a long time, and even though I was dying to hear it live, in the back of my head I thought that there was no way the track could ever live up to my lofty expectations. I was wrong though. It was the best live song that I have ever heard. The moment that electric mandolin started, nothing else in the world mattered. It was just something else, an indescribably beautiful and powerful song that echoed through every part of your being. All I could do was stand there, slightly in awe, singing along as loudly as I could to every single word, just like I had imagined doing for six years. It was not a moment that I will forget.

The song reached its unforgettable climax, full of instruments and Will Sheff’s sublime voice and passion and fierceness and jumping. But then suddenly all electronically enhanced sound stopped, as Will Sheff screamed unplugged “Evil don’t look like anything” repeatedly and the crowd joined him as he smashed the mic stand down in between lines, creating a powerful crashing sound that echoed around the theater, magnified by everyone in the crowd stamping their feet in unison. It was one of the most powerful single moments of live music that I’ve ever witnessed.

Before we had a chance to recover from the powerhouse that was Westfall, the band were breaking into their final song, and it was of course Unless It’s Kicks. Chaos broke lose as the drumkit seemed to spontaneously fall apart and band members scattered to put it back together, all the while as that jangly guitar riff blared out loudly into the crowd and Will Sheff broke into something of a rap, dedicating the song to the artificial sky of The Forum and talking about what a magical place it had been to play. When the song did eventually break into full rhythm it was incredible, finishing the night with a rollicking party as Sheff once again led the crowd in raising our hands to the ceiling and clapping as loudly as we could along with the song, creating for a truly breathtaking sight that saw a large smile spread across the face of the frontman. 

By the time Unless It’s Kicks came to its euphoric conclusion, Okkervil River had played for nearly two hours. It clearly wasn’t enough for the crowd however, as we clapped and chanted for a good five minutes after the band had departed the stage. Eventually Will Sheff reappeared by himself, and, in lieu of a functioning microphone, yelled out to the crowd that the band wanted to play one more song, but the venue wasn’t letting them. And that really sums up the night: neither the band nor the crowd could get enough of the experience. While another song would have been nice, I did get to shake Will’s hand, so I guess I’ll have to settle for that.

It had been an incredible gig. It featured levels of emotion, intensity, energy, poignancy, and drama more readily associated with a play or a movie than with a musical performance. It had been an utterly flawless gig from one of the best bands of our generation. Just remembering it now brings a smile to my face. You’re perfect, Okkervil River. Don’t ever change.

What breaks this heart the most is the ghost of some rock and roll fan
Exploding up from the stands
With her heart opened up
And I want to tell her, “Your love isn’t lost”
Say, “My heart is still crossed”
Scream, “You’re so wonderful!”
What a dream in the dark

About working so hard
About growing so stoned
Trying not to turn off
Trying not to believe in that lie all on your own

5 Responses to “Gig Review: Okkervil River @ The Forum, 14th October”

  1. Awesome review- it brings back the wonderment I felt that night too. The atmosphere of the crowd and generosity of the front man made the show both really intimate and powerful. To soothe your resentment towards the dickheads who were thrashing around making too much noise that night. I had one of them writhing around in front of me and pushing everyone around on the left side of the front crowd, but after several strategic splashes of my drink down his arms and back followed by my insincere apologises, they quickly proceeded to the other (your) side of the crowd.

  2. That review had as much heart and visceral energy as the band creates onstage. You’re well suited to one another. It’s one of the most enthusiastic band reviews I’ve seen. How wonderful to put into words the strong feelings you experienced; bravo!

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