Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Okkervil River + Wye Oak, Scala, 14/9/09

It’s weird watching faces change when you pass through the same venue often. Scala’s hosted La Roux, Dirty Projectors and Okkervil River in quick succession in the last few days, and for every garish girl and word-perfect gay at La Roux, there was a skinny east-end type at Dirty Projectors – Primark pumps swapped for brogues and a pout. Okkervil River manage to pull the other one, a sold-out theatre filled with the balding, bespectacled and bearded.

They’re the kind of people that file their papers at five thirty, eat their tea and arrive on time, and so Scala is already full for support Wye Oak. The Baltimore duo is a striking listen and an ambiguous pair. There’s just so much noise from those four hands – that kit, that guitar – that the eyes wander to the pedals and to percussionist Andy Stack’s left hand, simultaneously playing bass on a keyboard, his right hand and his feet never missing a drumbeat or cymbal roll. Jenn Wasner plays her guitar like it doesn’t belong to her, like her arms are disconnected, but the sounds that emerge from the speaker switch easily between the patter of folk and the incremental build up of unexpected distortion. She knows what that guitar is, make no mistake, despite all that innocent inter-song babble and softly softly vocal. It’s subtly brilliant, varied and an all-round success. The beards like this band. The brogues just might, too.

Subtle isn’t the word for Okkervil River, oh no. Someone gave Will Sheff a guitar when he was a baby and he never let go, he liked the attention. Now responsible for the watery indie-folk of Shearwater alongside his decade-spanning career with Okkervil River, and the as the king of all the beards, it’s astounding he hasn’t yet satiated his ego. Tonight’s set presents rousing stuff for fans that threatens to collapse under technical issues early on, Sheff complaining that the problem prevents him from really getting into the songs. After a few quick repairs he gets in with two feet, pulling everyone present in, too. There’s handclapping, acoustic numbers, songs old and new and the odd petering singalong. ‘Girl In Port’ is an obvious highlight rendered well-tempered and genuine, while ‘John Allyn Smith Sails’ is overwrought, even the audience shying from the obvious collective chorus the band are trying to induce.

Okkervil River are clearly a multifaceted, musical triumph and there is craftsmanship at work in the songs they create, but it can’t detract from the idiosyncratic smugness of that frontman and his Cocker-esque swagger. That his fans are out in force at Scala tonight justifies the showmanship – there are elated faces at the close of a set nigh on ninety minutes long – but one wonders how some of Scala’s other visitors this week might have reacted to such unashamed pomp.

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