Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, ON
June 10, 2011
Review by: Lee Fraser
Photos by: Amanda Fotes
Playing Toronto again after an absence of over two and a half years, Okkervil River takes the audience on a tour through new and old.
Though there were plenty of Titus Andronicus fans present, it seemed that everyone in the Phoenix Concert Theatre was eager to see Okkervil River. The stage was adorned with a massive backdrop of William Schaff's artwork from the band's latest album I Am Very Far. The floor and the balcony were crowded to the point of congestion along travel corridors to bathrooms and beer. The atmosphere was one of high anticipation for the band members to emerge from backstage.
Opening with "White Shadow Waltz" from the new album, the crowd seemed unfamiliar with the new material (the album has been out exactly one month) but mesmerized by seeing Okkervil River after such a long absence. Moving straight into "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene" from the 2007 album The Stage Names, long-time fans showed a glimmer of energy.
Perhaps due to this uncertain reception to the new material, Will Sheff (vocals, acoustic guitar) seemed to take a few songs to warm up to the audience. After performing "Rider" from the new album, Will finally approached the mic between songs to thank the crowd, stating that they had been looking forward to this show. Bringing the energy level down, the lights dimmed, the disco ball turned slowly and the band played "A Girl In Port". Lauren Gurgiolo (guitars, banjo), wearing a sexy little short skirt and her trademark cowboy boots, seated herself to play lap steel guitar. As the song built to its climax through Will's powerful vocals, Lauren shed the lap steel to return to electric guitar, and Scott Brackett (horns, violin, keys) picked up the trumpet.
This was not the only low key portion of the show. After warning the audience, "This is a quieter song," Sheff bravely sang "A Stone"; just a man and his acoustic guitar, playing soft, beautiful lyrics to a packed house of beer-buzzed fans. During the chorus, the fans joined along, giving Will a sign that his delivery was much appreciated. Other than these quiet moments, the show was full of swaying, clapping and singing along.
Cully Symington (drums), a relative newcomer to the band, is a strong drummer technically. His percussion adds the emphasis that make so many of the new songs, like "The Valley" and "Your Past Life As A Blast" stand out in a live setting. Patrick Pestorius (bass) adds to the energy on-stage, not quite as animated as Will, but playing with an infectious joy. Justin Sherburn, playing keys for the most part, picked up an electric guitar now and then to add to the wall-of-sound effect, or traded in his flying fingers for tapping a tambourine. During songs like "Black", Justin and Scott play their respective keyboards with great effect, complimenting each other well.
In light of the current media and concert tour by Brian Wilson, the band gave a staple song on the set list a twist. Starting with "John Allyn Smith Sails", they moved deftly into The Beach Boys' 1966 hit, "Sloop John B." Since Okkervil River and Brian Wilson are playing within a week of each other in several cities, I afforded myself a fleeting fantasy of two of the best songwriters of their respective times sharing the spotlight with this song.
But back to reality. Sheff made good use of a second mic on-stage that was rigged with echo effect. The haunting vocals at the end of a new track, "Piratess" could not be accomplished without this. During "So Come Back, I Am Waiting", an interesting lighting effect revealed an intricate watermark in the fabric of the massive backdrop. A cowboy hat or two raised in salute could be seen; an unusual sight at the Phoenix.
Okkervil River ended the set on a high note, playing three crowd favourites that incited fist pumping and boisterous singing. Lauren played a searing guitar solo during "For Real". Cully had a crazy drum solo during "Our Life Is Not A Movie, Or Maybe". And Justin had a strong piano solo during "Lost Coastlines". With Scott featured on trumpet, and Will and Patrick dancing around the stage like heavy metal guitar gods, everyone sang along, taking part in the epic finale. Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, the band quickly emerged to play a two-song encore, wisely choosing to play the 2002 favourite "Westfall" and ending with "Unless It's Kicks".
The night ended with a sea of arms and hands extended towards the stage to clap along, summed up by Sheff when he said, "This has been fantastic!"