Okkervil River
Crystal Ballroom; Portland, OR

“Holy shit, I can’t believe we’re playing the Crystal Ballroom,” Will Sheff shouted as his band took the stage before a marginally filled house. Ever since exploding onto the scene with his 2005 breakthrough Black Sheep Boy, Sheff and Okkervil River seem to have no intention of going anywhere but up. Three years, two albums, two EPs, a free cover albums, and countless shows later, Okkervil River are playing bigger venues now, yet they still haven’t achieved the level of fame (or notoriety) as contemporaries The Hold Steady and The National. So what gives?

“Will Sheff sounds too much like Adam Duritz,” one of my friends said, growing reed around his collar with ire whenever I play him an Okkervil River track. “Something about the music is so depressing it makes me want to curl up,” said another. But if the band may sound like a (much) better version of the Counting Crows and Sheff spits lyrics that are both thoughtful and saddening, there is no denying that this band is red-hot right now, as evidenced by a scorching performance at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom.

Okkervil River kicked off the concert with the “slow song” “Girl in Port.” Dressed in a shabby black suit and tie, moppish hair swept off his bespectacled face, Sheff is both a dynamic and shambolic performer. He is all over the stage, contorting his body in rhythms around his acoustic guitar. Flanked by a five-piece backing band, Sheff played an exciting set that numbered nearly 20 songs, highlighting tracks from the band’s recent The Stand Ins, as well as many other past chestnuts. Watching the band is as exciting as watching Sheff himself. Drummer Travis Nelsen is one of the most energetic drummers I’ve seen, singing to himself with relish while pounding his kit. Lauren Gurgiolo, the newest member of the band, stepped in for the departed Brian Cassidy and backed up Sheff well with her black Gibson guitar.

Among the standouts of the set were “Starry Stairs,” which Sheff dedicated to the people smoking the weed that pungently filled the audience, and the apocalyptic “So Come Back, I’m Waiting.” When the band segued into “Sloop John B” during “John Allyn Smith Sails,” the crowd danced and sang along. But the audience was not courteous all the time. Sheff quit a minute into “Maine Island Lovers” as the noise from the crowd threatened to drown out that solo number. He instead launched into a snarling version of “A Stone,” the fury bubbling just under the surface as he demanded all the house lights out and a lone spotlight shining down upon him.

The band closed the first set with the amazing Stage Names duo of “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” and “Unless it Kicks.” This is the third time I’ve seen Okkervil River, and never before has the band been so tight and so unhinged at the same time. As the band returned to the stage for an encore that highlighted old gems “Okkervil River Song” and “Westfall,” Sheff said that the last time they played Portland a record label rep gave the performance a “C+.” After telling us this little anecdote, Sheff just smiled. He knew this time around he scored an “A.”


Photo: [Okkervil River]

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