Sunday, April 27, 2008

Concert Review: Okkervil River and New Pornographers - St. Louis, MO - April 19, 2008

Somehow I had managed to convince my wife that attending the Okkervil River/New Pornographers concert in St. Louis was the best way to spend our two-year anniversary. Certainly better than a quiet, romantic dinner and a few glasses of wine. After all, if spending an April night in a packed concert club with various hoody-wearing indie fans isn’t romantic, I don’t know what is.

I understood her trepidation; she hadn’t heard anything by Okkervil River, and her knowledge of the New Pornographers didn’t extend far beyond the song “Twin Cinema” and “that poppy song that was used in the University of Phoenix commercials.”

Top that off with several failed attempts to impose my musical tastes on her (“there’s no way you can’t like this"), and several brutal Bob Dylan concerts over the years (synopsis: sweltering St. Louis summer, lawn seating, and a dancing concert neighbor sporting what appeared to be a massive case of scabies), and the possibility of a disastrous evening was very real.

But a person unfamiliar with the musical performers brings something that those familiar with the band’s music sometimes lack: objectivity and a lack of preconceived notions. Chances are very good that if you really like the band on stage, nothing short of a complete disaster (chemically-disabled musicians, abysmal venue acoustics, or Woodstock 1994) will change your opinion about that band. You’ll enjoy the songs and be reminded of why you downloaded the latest album on the sly; maybe on the way out you’ll stop at the Merch stand and buy a size medium t-shirt that shrinks to the size of a postage stamp upon first washing. Roughly paraphrased, Bob Dylan once said in an interview that he plays for the people who don’t attend every concert and who might not be familiar with or fans of his music; those Dylanphiles who roam the world popping up at every Dylan show (and they are out there, living among us, biding their time, corrupting our children…) are already converted.

Applying this concept to the show at the Pageant Saturday night, both my wife and myself largely had the same experience and opinions for both bands: headlining act New Pornographers was solid and tight; opening act Okkervil River was nothing short of spectacular.It’s not that the New Pornographers mailed in the performance; far from it. The band was clearly energetic and enjoying themselves, and there were some musical highs. The live versions of songs from their latest, and underrated, album Challengers were played well enough, even if they didn’t sound much different from the actual album version. And a cover of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” unleashed the closet pogo dancers throughout the pit. The biggest letdown from their performance is that the band and their playing almost seemed too controlled, too proficient, too note-perfect. There weren’t many rough edges or new twists: just another day at the musical office.

This impression was at least partially shaped by Okkervil River’s standout opening performance. At times quiet and controlled, and other times unhinged and wild, the band delivered one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen at the Pageant.

Cramming songs from recent albums Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names into an hour-long set list, singer Will Sheff and the band delivered an emotional, sometimes theatrical performance that successfully communicated the themes that run throughout the band’s songs: life’s small disappointments (“Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” and “A Girl In Port”), self-inflicted endings (“John Allyn Smith Sails”), and a whole mess of ugly emotions (“Black” and “A Stone”).My wife was hooked from the opening song (“The President’s Dead) and I suspect she wasn’t the only one. The band’s music and Sheff’s lyrics didn’t so much nudge us awake as they grabbed us by the throat. After an hour that seemed to pass all too soon the band was done and left to loud applause.

Despite both being indie bands, Okkervil River and the New Pornographers are far more different than similar. With their open-ended lyrics, catchy tunes, and controlled stage demeanor, the New Pornographers are somewhat traditional. Okkervil River’s lyrics tend to be more direct and attention-grabbing, and their music often veers into various styles and tempos. At the Pageant on Saturday night, each band played to their strengths. One band was solid. The other was spectacular.

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