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Gig Review: Will Sheff @ The Toff, 16th October

Last night Will Sheff played an enthralling and fiercely intimate show at the Toff In Town that served as both the perfect companion gig to Friday night’s Okkervil River show as well as a fantastic night of live music in its own right.

I arrived at the venue in time to catch all of Mike Noga’s set, and I’m certainly glad that I did. Not only was Mike’s music thoroughly enjoyable but he was also very charming in an offbeat kind of way. I particularly enjoyed how he complained about the crowd being ‘too quiet’ because it was making him nervous. Indeed it was probably the most respectful I have ever seen a crowd for a support act, a testament to both the type of people that Will Sheff’s music attracts and the skill of Mike Noga.

A wager with the crowd about picking references to musicians in one of his songs was very enjoyable, as was pretty much all of his banter. Meanwhile his acoustic music, at once gentle and somehow brooding, was just as charming, and was perfectly suited to opening for Will Sheff. 

I didn’t know much of his music but count myself among his fans after the show. In fact I tried to buy his CD at the merch stand, only to be told that he was nowhere to be seen and had probably lost the CDs anyway: apparently “he’s been on a four day bender and doesn’t really know where he is”. That only made me like him more. 

The Toff was pretty much packed by the time Will Sheff took to the stage, but thankfully it was a respectful and chilled crowd that was obviously only interested in having a relaxed Sunday night and enjoying some fantastic music. Yet again, it was an impeccable Toff crowd. Will proceeded to play an enchanting set of unassuming acoustic renditions of classic Okkervil River tracks, filling in the gaps of Friday night’s setlist with some older tracks that don’t often get played at Okkervil River gigs, as well as reworking some of the band’s newer material. Predictably, the music was nothing short of magical.

Red, one of my favourite Okkervil River tracks, made a welcome early appearance, and the haunting lyrics combined with Sheff’s sublime voice and the revered silence of a packed Toff made for an incredible experience: “I’m full of fiction, and fucked by addiction, and I miss my mother”. For the most part Will simply stood front and center of the small stage with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a microphone, but he also used the space of the stage very nicely, occasionally backing away from the mic to lend a more unplugged quality to his voice.

I had been ever so slightly disappointed when Okkervil River didn’t play Plus Ones on Friday night, but this was rectified with a wonderful solo rendition of the fantastic track by Will Sheff, with plenty of harmonica for good measure. The song is a conflation of pop culture references, but at the same time it’s also operatic and dramatic, and I’m very glad that I got to hear the song in such an intimate setting. Happy Hearts was another surprise inclusion, and despite it being weird to hear Will sing the song without his voice breaking every other note, it was still incredible.

Your Past Life Is A Blast saw Will play on keyboard, completely changing the vibe of the song, while Wake And Be Fine got an acoustic rearrangement, which I actually think I prefer to the studio version. The highlight of the night for me however was a song that I never thought I would hear live: The President’s Dead. I had goosebumps for the entire song. It’s just lyrical perfection, and witnessing it in the surrounds of The Toff was an experience that, fittingly, really did make me feel I was blessed.

A Stone was restrained and breathtaking, and a keys version of For Real was similarly fantastic, really changing the vibe of the studio version of the track but not losing any of its intensity. A surprise version of Unless It’s Kicks, which I hadn’t thought possible to play acoustically, was actually incredible, and turned into one of the highlights of the set. Throughout the show Will was of course utterly charming, saying “Thank you guys” very sincerely at the end of every track and just seeming like he was having a good time on stage. I particularly enjoyed his self-depreciating joke of updating his Facebook status with “I’m really feeling it tonight guys, I’m so sensitive”. We also agreed that the nature of The Toff was a mystery to all of us.

Will brought out his iPhone to provide the backing track of The Valley, which seemed a little bit out of place, however I suppose it served to break up the set quite nicely. A short encore break later Will was back on stage to play a handful of final songs, concluding with an electric guitar and a totally reworked version of Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe. Again, it seemed a little out of place given that virtually the entire set had been played with an acoustic guitar, but it was still wonderful of course. 

And that was it. The end of Will Sheff’s shows in Melbourne for another tour and another year. It had been an enchanting and captivating show, and I can honestly say that it felt like a privilege to see a musician of Will Sheff’s caliber in such an intimate setting as the Toff. Will lost none of his intensity as a performer in the smaller venue, but it was somehow a different type of intensity, demanding unified and revered silence from the crowd more than it did singing and dancing. That’s not to say the show wasn’t fun of course, but more than anything it was just a chance to marvel at one of my favourite musicians in the world doing his thing in an intimate setting and doing it spectacularly.

There’s something very special about seeing someone like Will Sheff on stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, just standing and delivering his music without any trickery and without anything to hide behind. It’s hard to imagine a gig more genuine than this, and it really was a night- and a weekend- to be cherished. Come back soon Will.

Have you ever lived through a day where the littlest things
In the littlest ways made you feel you were blessed
If you died right then, well you know you’d be missed
But there’s no better state to cease to exist
And you wouldn’t feel sad, and you wouldn’t resist
Cause you knew what you had, and were thankful for it

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One Response to “Gig Review: Will Sheff @ The Toff, 16th October”

  1. I almost died of happiness when he played The President’s Dead. I thought they’d stopped doing that one completely. Such a good show.

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