When the show came to an end, most of the Sunday night crowd was still there, although maybe slightly more disheveled than when they came in, but most would have happily heard even more music.
When Okkervil River last visited St. Louis it played to a lightly filled Pageant. This time, the band squeezed nearly as many people into a space that holds half as many patrons. Even before opener Will Johnson's set, the floor and balcony were starting to fill up.
Will Johnson's solo set came in waves. First, the Denton, Texas native played some of his solo work, then a few older songs from various different projects and finally a group of new songs from his band Centro-matic's upcoming album. The set featured spare but loud guitars and vocals that were oftentimes more like growls and roars than distinguishable words. Even with a slightly-greying, scraggly beard, Johnson seemed to be years younger than his weathered voice sounded.
Okkervil River's equipment was already on stage, so while he played, Johnson was like a lone soldier standing in front of an army of microphone stands and guitars. When Johnson's set came to a close, the venue now even more packed than it had been before, a few minor alterations were made on stage and then the crowd waited. Some people took this time to restock on drinks, tall cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon being the most popular choice, but for the most part, it was 45 minutes of anticipation building.
At around 9:30 p.m., six members of Okkervil River took the stage, and without any sort of introduction, got straight to business. Will Sheff and Co. fired off four songs back to back, a thunderous "It's My Season" to open and raucous throwback "Black" soon after. Sheff's thin frames began to slip down his nose, and it wasn't until a break before the fifth song of the night that he got a chance to push them back up. I could not tell if he really needed the glasses though, because most of the time he sang with his eyes closed, and for the second half of the set, he removed the glasses all together.
Okkervil River's most recent album, "The Silver Gymnasium," was inspired by a childhood in New Hampshire, and the album's themes had a presence on stage. Sheff wore a New Hampshire belt buckle and the bass drum Cully Symington pounded on tirelessly was emblazoned with the state seal. Small momentos of childhood, in the form of plastic toy figurines, rested on amplifiers and monitors, as if the equipment were shelves of a child's bedroom.
"John Allyn Smith Sails" was the first real sing-along of the night, despite the song being overwhelmingly about suicide. A few songs later came "The Valley," during which Sheff switched out his acoustic guitar for an electric, still made of dark wood but allowing for him to let even more loose than he had during the prior songs. Multi-instrumentalist Scott Brackett played trombone for most of the song, but the screeching of guitars made it almost impossible to hear the brass.
Right when the show reached a loud, penetrating pinnacle, Sheff pulled the plug and played "Kansas City" with just bassist Patrick Pestorius with him on stage. While the slowed-down break may have been necessary, both for the crowd and for the out-of-breath Sheff, it may have come a bit too soon, or at least sooner than I was expecting.
The other times when Sheff took breaks, it was to talk with the crowd, sometimes repeating himself or losing his train of thought midway through an observation. A few times, usually before or after cursing, he asked if the show was all-ages (it was). Once, during a recollection of Halloween a few nights before, Sheff shared that he looks "really untrustworthy with a mustache."
On the surface, Okkervil River seemed dysfunctional and chaotic. During the unexpectedly tropical "Stay Young," Sheff reached pointed fingers out into the crowd, not directly at any particular guest though. A few times, Sheff pulled his microphone from its stand too quickly and the stand snapped back and smacked him in the face. On his way back to the stage for the encore, he tripped on a guitar stand and almost came tumbling down on the drum kit. During "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene," Sheff flailed his arms out above the crowd like he'd been doing for much of the night. As he sang the chorus, "Is there a hand to hold to take hold of the scene," someone in the front row reached both hands forward, one holding onto a can of beer like it was a sacrificial offering for Sheff.
Even with the wild moments, every member of Okkervil River was always where they needed to be, and the live instrumentation sounded as polished, if not more, than on recordings. During "Lost Coastlines," Lauren Gurgiolo rocked back and forth on an Ernie Ball volume pedal, almost like she was dancing in time with the song. The two covers, Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" and Wang Chung's "Dance Hall Days," were transformed into messy, folky, Okkervil River songs.
As the headliner wrapped up its final song, an extended version of "Unless It Kicks," Sheff removed his denim jacket and let his arms flail one last time as he alternated between clapping, playing guitar and wiping locks of sweaty hair from his face. With guitars still echoing, the band left the stage, leaving behind a pile of guitar picks and empty glasses. The plastic dinosaur that sat atop Gurgiolo's amplifier had fallen to the ground. Like a mid-fall tornado, the band had ripped through Off Broadway, making a much-appreciated mess, and then it was gone.
Okkervil River set list:
It Was My Season
On a Balcony
John Allyn Smith Sails
Where the Spirit Left Us
Lido Pier Suicide Cars
Satellite of Love (Lou Reed cover)
Down Down the Deep River
Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe
Dance Hall Days (Wang Chung cover)
Walking Without Frankie
A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene
Unless It's Kicks