Okkervil River has always been about Will Sheff. Even on their latest release I Am Very Far, the biggest sound record of their career, the music seems to exist only to frame Sheff’s detailed and often dark lyrics. His solo show at The Toff on Saturday gave fans the chance to hear stripped back versions of the band’s songs and the result was absolutely incredible.
A few people turned up early to watch Jimmy Stewart. Although he may not be household name he has toured relentlessly (he once played 51 gigs in two months). Beginning with a cover of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile, his gravelly voice and songs that boarder the country end of the spectrum were a hit with the growing crowd, who remained silent for the entire set, a rare occurrence for a support band. Despite not being familiar with his work before the gig, I left it as a fan.
Mike Noga had the difficult task of opening for Sheff and like the last time I saw him the set came with its own unique charm in the form of a nasty hangover. He greeted the crowd by asking if anyone else was disappointed with the new Gillian Welsh album before launching into a set of dark indie folk. After three nights of playing drums for The Drones at The Corner he was visibly wrecked at spent most of the time in-between tracks rambling about various topics and telling the crowd how nervous he was because of their silence.
The crowd were silent for a reason though, with everyone paying him the attention of a headline act. The wager to guess all four acts referenced in Piss On a Butterfly went down well, even though nobody could guess correctly. One of the biggest highlights of the set was Irish murder ballad Eileen, its dark subject matter unexpected after hearing Noga talk about his cats for the last five minutes. Not only did Mike Noga make the wait for Will Sheff bearable, he made it thoroughly enjoyable.
Launching straight into Rider , Will Sheff left little time for formalities. Using little more than an acoustic guitar and harmonica, the acoustic setting allowed for the songs’ strength to really shine through. The clever Plus Ones was a highlight of the set, as was B-side I Guess We Lost which I prefer to some of the tracks that eventually made it onto I Am Very Far.
The best part of acoustic gigs like this one is hearing fan favourites that are rarely played during fell-band sets. Happy Hearts was a surprise inclusion and sounded great despite the lack of Daniel Johnson. Nobody expected to hear The President’s Dead or Red live, the latter causing audible gasps among the audience.
Sheff switched to keyboard for a few songs which gave a different take on some of the songs. For Real lost none of its intensity without the full band, while his performance of Your Past Life Was A Blast improved on the studio version by removing all of the noise the plagues the album it comes from.
The biggest highlight of the set for me was A Stone. I discovered Black Sheep Boy as an angsty 16 year old that song in particular sound tracked many of my teenage years. Live it was incredible. Will Sheff has always sung like he is on the verge of a mental breakdown and thanks to the excellent sound of The Toff and the appriciative crowd, it was perfect.
That said, there were a few missteps. Using an iPhone to create a backing for The Valley was out of place, and seemed too much of a contrast to the rest of the set. Anyone else but Sheff would not have been able to pull it off. It was the final song, Our Life Is Not A Move Or Maybe that provided the set’s low point. Having heard some amazing acoustic version floating around the internet, I was particularly excited about hearing it. Instead Will Sheff played it on an electric guitar which didn’t quite mix with the rest of the set. That said, Will Sheff’s average is more than some musicians will achieve in a lifetime.
Overall it was an amazing gig that I am sure I’ll remember for years to come. The combination of the respectful crowd, intimacy of The Toff and the talents of all of the musicians involved made it something truly special.