Okkervil River, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 22 November 2008

Okkervil River’s concert at Porgy & Bess on Saturday night is a very strong contender for my show of the year. With just a few weeks to go before 2008 wraps up, its pole position is unlikely to be overtaken. This was a night of sheer blinding inspiration, with song after song ramming home extraordinary amounts of rhythmic flair and melodic inventiveness. In Will Sheff the group has a frontman like none I have ever seen: searingly honest, passionate and quite transported in his breathtaking urge to communicate through live performance.

The epic “A Girl In Port,” from Okkervil’s 2007 album The Stage Names, is probably the best song I’ve heard all year, and repeated listens have convinced me of its greatness. So when the group launched into it as the very first song of this concert, I knew at once that it was going to be a highly memorable evening. And so it proved, as the concert unfolded into a shatteringly effective piece of communal music theatre. Whether welded to his acoustic guitar, clinging to the microphone stand, leaning precipitously over the stage or sharing a moment of closeness with the immaculate band behind him, Sheff does nothing less than redefine the limits of what it is possible for a musician to do onstage. His smile is winning, his voice emotive, his communion with the audience uniquely close and thrilling. After “A Girl In Port,” the other song that has had a deep impact on me this year is “Black,” from 2005’s Black Sheep Boy. I was praying they would play it, but dared not hope; when they launched into this surging rollercoaster of a song, I felt… well, there are really no words.

With their cover version of Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz,” chosen and rehearsed (so Sheff told us) specifically for this concert, Okkervil River displayed a sense of place and a generosity of spirit that contrasted markedly with Cohen’s own performance of the same song here in Vienna a few months ago. Sheff said the group always enjoy playing here because of the response they receive from the audiences. Maybe he says that every night, although somehow I doubt it. In any event, for them to play that song here felt like a precious gift from the group to the audience. The old groaner, on the other hand, made no specific introduction to the song when he played it in Vienna, as if refusing to acknowledge that there was something beautiful and special about hearing the song played by its author in the magnificent surroundings of the Konzerthaus. This dogged refusal to deviate one iota from his prepared script on those two evenings was profoundly depressing.

And I’m really not in the habit of doing this kind of thing, but on Saturday I couldn’t resist: I reached out and shook Sheff’s hand as he left the stage, then stretched over and retrieved not one but two of his discarded guitar picks (Jim Dunlop 0.6mm, if you’re interested). Whether they’ll enable any of the magic of this concert to transfer to my own hopeless attempts to play the guitar remains to be seen. In any event, this was an evening of transformative joy and elation such as I have rarely if ever experienced in a concert hall.

Photos by David Murobi here.

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