Will Sheff and his band Okkervil River are an outfit in perpetual motion, experimenting musically and thematically with each new release and this approach is always demonstrated by their enormously energising live performances. Their previous visit to Manchester back in 2016 seemed to reflect Sheff’s despondent response to America’s divisive political landscape and this was never more evident that night than in their re-modelled version of ‘Unless it Kicks’. The song was an ominous affair that evening, stripped of its riff and pessimistic in its vocals. The effect was darkly intoxicating but this evening it is a very different, revitalising affair. The song appears as the final track of a resplendent encore and the surging melody is back, the organic textures have returned, gradually and majestically forged by Sheff’s most brilliant band. The vocals are coursing with a bolder optimism which caps an evening of staggering musical entertainment suggesting that he is more determined than ever to not let the dubious political direction of the United States affect his musical demeanour anymore.
William Fussell AKA Honey Harper provides the grandiose, Americana-infused reflective thrills in the support slot, offering wonderfully organic yet reserved incantations of the genre. His succinct songs are enhanced by wonderful harmonies, evocative lap steel guitars and swirling soundscapes full of bird choruses and soaring aircraft. The real surprise however comes during the last song when the Atlanta-born, London-based singer launches into the Dusty Springfield song ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’. It’s a performance full of swooning majesty and Harper even demonstrates the sashaying extravagance of Elvis Presley in this moment in Gorilla’s spotlight.
Back in 2016 the Okkervil River show, at the same venue, was a sell-out. Sadly this is not the case tonight, but it doesn’t seem to affect the passion and energy displayed by Will Sheff and co. when the band open with ‘Pulled Up the Ribbon’. It comes from the band’s ninth album, In the Rainbow Rain, which was released in the spring. It is a typically personal affair, driven by a gutsy acoustic melody provided by the industrious Sheff and Sarah Pedinotti’s forceful synths and subtle backing vocals create a wonderfully atmospheric introduction to the evening. There’s a hint of Robert Smith and Bruce Springsteen about the vocals and melodies on display in this track and the former comparisons continues with 2003’s more introspective ‘It Ends With a Fall’. ‘Love Somebody’ comes from the new album but maintains the more contemplative approach. It possesses a slightly geeky, eighties vibe that wouldn’t seem out of place in a John Hughes soundtrack, but it’s full of wonderfully innovative musical flourishes. ‘Pink Slips’ continues this melodic, cool vibe and the gloriously visual, autobiographical and poignant narrative of ‘Famous Tracheotomy’ enhances this more gentle musical approach before the song’s Ray Davies-inspired ‘Waterloo Sunset’ motif infuses a more knowing intertextuality.
Last month saw the release of a couple of new songs and the first of these, ‘New Blood’, provides a wonderful mid-set highlight. Benjamin Lazar Davis generates a wonderfully smoky ambience on the keys this time and Pedinotti’s backing vocals shimmer beside Sheff’s. The song emphasises the sonic shift Okkervil River seem determined to experiment with; there’s a groove to proceedings, a shake to the hips perhaps that is enhanced by thrilling guitar work from Will Graefe; indeed, the guitarist’s contribution to the evening can not be understated. Whilst Sheff provides the vital foundations on the acoustic guitar, Graefe generates thrilling layers and textures which are hypnotic in their presentation as he slinks, crab-like around the stage. ‘Judey on the Street’ is an incredible example of the vitality provided by the guitarist. One again, there is a Springsteen quality to the song, and Graefe subtly combines a range of organic layers until you eventually realise you’re witnessing a flowing, torrent of guitar textures that fascinate in their complexity.
Sheff really has surrounded himself with the most inventive, immersive performers. Drummer Jeremy Gustin, who has previously performed with Albert Hammond Jr. hides in the dark but he is a powerhouse one minute and a gentle soul the next whilst Lazar-Davis on bass is a kinetic force of nature providing a glue that occasionally comes loose as he unleashes fluid solos that thrill without ever seeming indulgent. This is the key to the evening; there is a revitalised passion to the performance, a renewed optimism culminating in the reinvigorated ‘Unless it Kicks’ demonstrating perhaps that Sheff is done with being too down about recent events back home. It’s time to take action.