Will Sheff is a densely literate songwriter of the highest degree. Like a good novelist, his songs reveal layers as they progress, adding intrigue and possibility to the plot and subtle nuance to the characterization, while weighty symbolism abounds throughout. The man also likes his hand-claps, as Sheff raucously urged and prodded the crowd to “throw their hands up” and clap along to the beats of some of the band’s best-known numbers. In fact, the second half of Okkervil River’s show at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre turned into a veritable, love-fest for Sheff and his bandmates, as they paraded out crowd-pleasers like “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe”, “Unless It’s Kicks”, and “Rider”.
As the crowd wildly obliged Sheff’s requests by singing loudly along and swaying across the venue’s floor, Sheff’s value as a frontman, in addition to his immense songwriting talent, became quite apparent. Unlike others of his ilk, Sheff is not an introvert. Rather than shyly hiding behind the mike and offering forth his confessions, he parades them front and center, dropping Bob Pollard-like leg kicks, and manically yelping his way through songs like a man born to testify. It is this showmanship, on peak display from the show opening one-two punch of “The Valley” and “For Real”, through the murky regions of I Am Very Far cuts “White Shadow Waltz” and “Show Yourself”, to the gritty murder ballad “Westfall”, that can surprise even the most tried and true Okkervil River fan. All night, Sheff dared the audience to reach into the places he was going, enveloping himself completely in the mood and feel of each song and playing as if his life depended on it. The rest of Okkervil River backed Sheff’s ferocity quite appropriately as well, with a nice added touch of Lauren Gurgiolo ‘s lead guitar duties occasionally making way for deft touches of banjo and electric mandolin, while the keys, bass, drums, and various other accompaniments added muscular triumph.
A live show should be less of a rendering of an artist’s catalog, and more of a collective encounter. Will Sheff and Okkervil River’s perfection of this craft turned a Tuesday night in Raleigh into a powerful and harmonious display of all a concert experience should be. Few can deny the power and versatility of Okkervil River on their album cuts. Live, they are amazingly carried to the next highest level.