Saturday, November 28, 2015

Concert review/trip report: Okkervil River in DC

Okkervil River is my favorite band and has been for many years. I had already seen the Will Sheff-led folk-rock outfit seven times in concert when they announced earlier this year that, for the tenth anniversary of their most acclaimed album Black Sheep Boy, they'd be playing a very brief run of shows in which they'd perform both Black Sheep Boy and the companion EP Black Sheep Boy Appendix in their entirety. Instantly I knew, since this was likely a once in a lifetime opportunity, that I had to go. So last Friday, November 20, I headed out with a couple friends to Washington DC and the Black Cat music venue for the first of the anniversary shows.

The music of Okkervil River was very significant to my relationship with my (deceased from lung cancer in April) wife Cara. Of the seven previous times I had seen them, she had joined me for six. I was naturally reminded of all those great shows - most of all, of the very first time Cara and I saw Okkervil River, on October 11, 2006 at the since-closed venue Little Brother's in Columbus. Cara and I were not yet dating at the time, but had become best friends over the course of that year. I drove down from Cleveland for the show despite it being on a Wednesday, because I had recently become a huge Okkervil River fan and I had never seen them in concert before. Any trip to Columbus was also an opportunity to see Cara, so naturally I asked her if she'd join me at the concert. Although she herself was not yet that familiar with Okkervil River's music, I can imagine how excited she was to go to the show with me. I was very excited to see her as well.

My friends and I ended up standing near the back of the room at the Black Cat, as Cara and I had also done at Little Brother's (the room at Little Brother's was smaller, though). And so I imagined Cara was next to me at this show as well. On occasion, I spoke to her, in my mind. "Isn't this great, Cara? Isn't it so cool that Jonathan Meiburg is here?"

(One of the best aspects of this anniversary show was the fact that Jonathan Meiburg, a member of the band from the earlier days who left years ago to focus on his own band Shearwater, joined Okkervil River to perform all their old songs. Meiburg, who has a stunning voice that wonderfully complements Sheff's rawer vocals, was with the band the first two times Cara and I saw them, which were probably the two best shows of all the Okkervil River concerts I've attended. Up on stage at the Black Cat, Meiburg looked so happy to be performing with his old band. It was a wonderful thing to see!)

Despite my having seen Okkervil River so many times in the past, the majority of the songs performed at this show were ones I'd never seen live before. I imagine many of them had rarely if ever showed up on setlists. Before the whole band came out, Sheff opened the show with a solo acoustic performance of the Sleep and Wake-Up Songs EP that preceded Black Sheep Boy in Okkervil River's discography. It was a great way to open the set. Sheff made an amusing and insightful comment before the last song, "No Hidden Track," about how the "hidden track" reference was very of its time and already very dated, referring to a concept that was only a thing during the CD era.

The Black Sheep Boy album was next. It opens with a gentle-sounding cover of the Tim Hardin tune of the same name, before going immediately into the visceral "For Real." I have a vivid memory of the first time I listened to the album. I got it for Christmas in 2005 after asking for it simply because I had read some good reviews online. My first listen to the CD was in fact my introduction to the band's music. I remember sitting at my computer at night, next to the window in the bedroom of my fourth-floor apartment. When that second track came on I was just blown away. And looking at my old logs, I see that after my first listen to the album, I listened to "For Real" three more times in the subsequent hour. It's a spectacular song. On the album, you can practically hear Will Sheff's spittle hitting the mic as he belts out the lyrics. Which reminds me of how, at two of the Okkervil River shows we attended, Cara commented that she got hit with some of Will's saliva while he was singing. She wasn't annoyed by this; rather, it was an indication of how close to the action she was (in both cases, I was standing behind her). The first time this happened was the second time we saw them, at the Pepper Jack Cafe (which, like Little Brother's, is apparently closed now) in Hamilton, Ontario on Cara's birthday in 2007. The other time was Cara's final Okkervil River show, on September 29, 2013 at the Beachland Ballroom here in Cleveland. On that occasion, Cara had recently had surgery to drain three liters of fluid from around her lungs. She didn't have the strength to stand through a whole concert so we had her in a wheelchair for the show so that she could be front and center by the stage. Here's a picture she took at that show:

Seeing the whole Black Sheep Boy album performed at the Black Cat was quite an experience. It's definitely a classic album. Hard to believe, of course, that it's more than ten years old now. The years really do go by. For the first time at any Okkervil River show I've attended, there was a female vocalist to duet with Sheff on the several tracks that have female vocals on the album. This was a really nice addition. Besides "For Real," another definite highlight was the much slower burning but equally intense "So Come Back, I Am Waiting." I have fond memories of this song both from that first time seeing the band back in 2006 and from the time we saw them the night before our wedding in Columbus, in June 2011.

(An aside about "So Come Back...": I've always thought it was just a bit odd that during the highly emotional climax of the song, there is what seems to me like a really cheesy pun: "Come back to your life on the lam." Get it, "lam," like "lamb," like "sheep" as in "Black Sheep Boy." Not a slight, just something that always stuck out to me. Moving on!)

The closing track of the album, "A Glow," is another song I've always loved but one I had never seen performed live. It's one of those songs with a really pretty male/female vocal duet. Great stuff.

After a short break, the band came right back for the last portion of the show, the Appendix. I've always thought Black Sheep Boy Appendix was fantastic (heck, everything the band has done is pretty fantastic), but never held it in quite the same regard as the album proper. Live, though? The Appendix might have been the very best portion of the night's proceedings. "No Key, No Plan," "Another Radio Song," and "Last Love Song For Now" were all spectacular, with the band rocking out at full intensity. One of my favorite moments, though, was the comment Sheff made before "The Next Four Months." Something about how he didn't want to "George Lucas things up too much," but he had to fix the lyrics in the song, which is about taking pills. Apparently he had gotten the dosage wrong, so "2000 milligrams" in the original version was changed to "100 milligrams" in this live performance. I just thought that was so great; I could imagine that little mistake eating away at him over all those years and I could imagine myself feeling the exact same way if I had done something like that. One of the wonderful things about live music, especially with certain performers such as Will Sheff, is seeing in person the humanity of the people whose music you've listened to so many times on your speakers or headphones. Which takes me back to that very first Okkervil River show in 2006. Sheff was sick, and apologized for it, but it didn't stop him from delivering a powerful performance. Because he was sick, he was drinking a lot of water during the show. He made a remark about being in the "hydration scene" that Cara and I remembered and referenced for years to come.

Another memory of that show is standing with Cara at the merch table near the entrance to the venue, looking at the shirts, and her asking me if I was going to buy one. I said I would wait to decide until after the show, and it would depend on whether the show was good enough to warrant making such a purchase. It most definitely was. I bought another shirt at the Black Cat last week. And here's the whole collection. Left-to-right: my shirt from 2006, my shirt and then Cara's shirt from 2013, and my shirt from 2015.

I was definitely sad, knowing that Cara would have been at the show with me (and not just in spirit) had she still been alive, but I'm very glad I got to go. It was an unforgettable experience.

My friends and I also had a nice time in DC the following day. We went to the National Gallery of Art, a museum I don't think I had ever visited in all of my many previous visits to DC. That might be partly because I thought art museums were boring when I was a kid. I've since changed my opinion. There was a lot of neat stuff there!

It was a very beautiful November day.

That evening we went to the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC and went to several cool places. We checked out a couple of neat record stores, caught some free live music at Madam's Organ Blues Bar, and then had a fantastic dinner at The Diner. Since I finally got around to getting a smartphone recently, naturally I have to take pictures of things I eat and drink:

I had the Voodoo Parish ("absinthe, sugar cube, angostura and peychaud's bitters, bulleit rye, sparkling wine" - my reaction: "a drink with both absinthe and rye? This I have to try" and it lived up to my expectations!), the Peanut's Revenge Shake ("peanut butter, chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream," delicious!) and a very tasty blackened salmon sandwich with caramelized red onion, mixed greens, and basil aioli. Also, one of my friends got this amazing (and vegan) Jamaican Shepherd's Pie with plantains, sweet potatoes, peppers, beans, coconut milk, and yucca.

We closed out the night by checking out one more bar and happened upon a place that was playing an amazingly nostalgia-inducing assortment of '90s alt-rock, pretty much every single track a hit from my middle school days. Songs like "Creep" by Radiohead, "Champagne Supernova" by Oasis, "Enter Sandman" by Metallica, and many, many others. It got to the point where every time the next song started up we would just look at each other and start laughing. Until finally, the music abruptly stopped, and then a minute later they started playing some lame Linkin Park remix. Which was a sign that it was time to leave.

By the way, Okkervil River fans (especially Clevelanders) may enjoy this bootleg I've just been listening to of their May 12, 2004 Beachland Tavern show. Sadly, that was before I was familiar with either Okkervil River or the Beachland, but it's really cool to hear the band back at that early point in their career and to imagine being there in that wonderful, familiar room.

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