Okkervil River + Roller One – The Forum Theatre, Melbourne – 14/10/2011

Locals Roller One provided a set of slow, dark, acoustic country tunes to open the night. Singer Fergus McAlpine’s smooth baritone vocal recalling Kris Kristofferson and Nick Cave. Unfortunately, the band suffered from being the opening act on a Saturday night in the vast chasm that is The Forum, and their material, though pleasant, was too slow and intricate to properly command the mostly still arriving crowd’s attention. One suspects that a more intimate setting would be a better environment in which to appreciate Roller One.

A short time later, once the backdrop featuring the cover of their new album had been lowered over the stage’s rear wall, the main act, being drummer Cully Symington, keyboardist Justin Sherburn, guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo, bassist Patrick Pestorius and guitarist and singer Will Sheff, assembled themselves at their designated stage positions.

Okkervil River are a frustrating beast who I have always wanted to like more but am put off by their frontman. Will Sheff’s wordy and intelligent lyrics mixed with great pop sensibilities, a less than healthy amount of cynicism, melancholia and anger, along with the impressive musicianship of the rest of the players, should be a recipe that can’t fail. Over the course of 6 albums, 5 EPs and 13 years, the band have established themselves amongst the great canon of lyrically driven indie pop bands, such as The Decemberists, Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire. They even managed to indulge in that most pretentious of endeavours, the concept album, with 2007’s The Stage Names which was then followed by a sequel, 2008’s The Stand Ins, and have it become their most successful record to date.

Sheff’s tendency towards the melancholic and his earnest philosophy student affectations can, however, unfortunately get somewhat tiring, and at times you wish he would just stop worrying and have a bit more fun. It is not simply the serious nature of his demeanor, or even his lyrical content, but also in the way he draws every note out like a cello, almost whimpering with the emotion of it all.

At one point Sheff began to say something along the lines of ‘You guys are really great/it’s a real pleasure to be here’, but trailed off halfway through and instead pointed out that his guitar capo looked like it had devil horns, finishing uncomfortably with ‘well that’s my banter quota filled then’. Such efforts to engage with the audience felt so forced they only served to distance him further, as if he could have been on any stage in the world and it would not have made a difference to his performance.

Having said that, one can’t argue with the strength of the material or the quality of musicianship that was on show at the Forum. The band were incredibly tight, moving from slower to more boisterous songs and back again with ease. Being the singer/songwriter, Sheff is the obvious the focal point of the group, however the arrangements and the performance were a complete ensemble affair and at no point did it feel like we were watching a solo act. Symington in particular was a delight to behold, his arms flailing, his incredibly tight patterns never letting the material’s folk leanings soften the mood too much. Sherburn was equally impressive; his keyboard parts proving particularly important to the material from the new album, I Am Very Far, which is less acoustic guitar-dominated than Okkervil’s earlier songs.

The set list offered the crowd favourites from throughout their back catalogue, and was particularly dominated by The Stage Names, with set highlights such as Our Life is a Movie or Maybe, Girl In Port, and the new album, I Am Very Far, with The Valley, We Need a Myth and Pyratess being equally strong inclusions.

Possibly the biggest stand-out moment of the night came when the band left Sheff and Pestorius to perform No Key, No Plan together; their beautiful harmonies as surprising as they were mesmerising. Another eyebrow raising highlight was the inclusion of an Australian classic, The Triffids’ One Soul Less on Your Fiery List.

Okkervil River seem to be the sort of band who attract a dedicated fanbase, resulting in many vocal recitations of well-loved lyrics to be heard throughout the crowd, particularly during the set closer Unless It Kicks, from The Stage Names, which was cause for a big, joyous sing-a-long.

Despite some reservations about their singer, Okkervil River proved that they are indeed worthy of the amount of love shown to them by a Forum Theatre full of devotees, providing a largely enjoyable set that showcased their many talents.

Originally published on FasterLouder on 19/10/2011. View original article.

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