Live Review: Okkervil River (Will Sheff solo) at Columbia City Theater 12/14/15

Live Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra
all photos by Matthew B. Thompson

Okkervil River's 2005 masterpiece, Black Sheep Boy, is one of those records that grabs you wherever you're at. If you haven't gotten the divine pleasure of experiencing it yet, I promise you, it will grab you at some point soon. There's just something about the coming-of-age brilliance of its narrative that is simultaneously easy to relate to and challenging to live into. Over the course of ten songs and a cover, Will Sheff takes you on a massive character arc, going from humble adolescent beginnings to fully realized adult reality. It's not a happy journey, but it's a necessary one - one that anyone who has ever seen themselves walking along the fringe can relate to and cherish without an ounce of resistance. This sense of story and belonging is what makes Black Sheep Boy a dead-ringer from beginning to end. It's this realness that unsurprisingly put Okkervil River up at the Bowery Ballroom for a completely sold out three night residence last month, playing the full album, as well as the Appendix EP, to highly anticipatory crowds. And it's the same realness that now guides lead singer and songwriter Will Sheff to the West Coast in the last weeks of the year for a short solo tour performing many of the same motifs. In theory, really thinking about it, I don't know which is objectively better - getting to see Okkervil perform the album straight through altogether, or getting to hear Will solo at the Columbia City theater, reinterpreting all of it in a newly appropriate order, and doing it all in his own time and space. In reality, Seattle got the latter, and it truly could not have been a better performance beginning to end.Needing no support whatsoever, Will emerged on stage to massive applause and anticipation. Immediately, the tone of the evening was set with a loose, organic rendition of "Song of Our So-Called Friend", where Sheff made it evident that recreation was not the theme for the evening. No, instead, the audience tonight was going to be hearing Black Sheep Boy all anew. Whether the album has been echoing inside your head for the better part of ten years, or whether you came along with a friend on a whim to hear some new song you'd never heard before, Will made the experience and the catharsis that is Black Sheep Boy a very fresh and very visceral experience. Not a moment of the epic set was wasted on expectation or crowd pandering. Every second of the show felt like Will Sheff weighing into this very special chapter of his band's existence with poise and respect for all those that still felt it resonate. As he made his way through Black Sheep Boy and the Appendix EP, he made the order and the presentation count. Where the album begins with a declaration of independence and a strife for real life, Will chose for this decade-later reflection to wait to declare the merits of real life until the end. There were similarly re-purposed mementos throughout the show, as time and experience both shaped the jagged-edged album with melancholy grace.

In terms of physical manifestation, Will stuck to his acoustic guitar (sometimes heavily supplemented by effects and echoes) and the piano (never more than it showed itself), along with some light backing tracks by way of cassette tapes. While the tapes may have seemed a bit pretentious at first, they make perfect sense within the context of the record, which makes the radio itself and all of its wonderful songs an important motif of the larger story. Altogether, Will's solo interpretation seemed incredibly appropriate. Nothing about the solo presentation felt like it was scaled down. Rather, the more raw and visceral elements of the record were seen naked in their graceless honesty the way they were always meant to be seen. Real fans of this record could ask for nothing else. Through and through, beginning to end, Will Sheff made this solo presentation of Black Sheep Boy count. The lows were felt in the resonant hopelessness of "In A Radio Song". The highs were felt in the stark individualism of the drum-heavy "Black" and "The Latest Toughs". To the bitter end of "For Real", presented here on solo piano, the audience followed Will along on a journey they were witnessing in person for the first time in its entirety. Bands looking to embark on anniversary tours sometime soon should look to Okkervil River with reverence and humility, as this is the real way to make a 10th year look-back at a job well done count in spectacular fashion.

The Black Sheep Boy 10th Anniversary reissue is out now on Jagjaguwar, featuring a full disc's worth of unreleased cover recordings relevant to the era. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl.

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