Okkervil River

In the end it happened. In the end I managed to see Okkervil River live.

It’s more than 10 years Okkervil River are at the centre of attention of anyone interested into Americana flavoured indie-rock.
Whether you call it folk-rock or alt.country, they are part of it. They are one of the seminal bands for the genre.

It’s this week news the announcement of 2011 Grammy’s nomination list.
No, don’t get me wrong, Okkervil River are not among the nominees, but that is not the point. The point is that they could have well been. Which is as breaking news as if they were.

Scrolling through the endless (beyond the limit of ridicule) best >>put-the-genre-here<< record of the year list, there is something interesting.
The most attentive readers have noticed that, among the usual pop, soul and hip-hop bland stars built in a studio to make Grammy’s albums and take part at the Grammy’s grand gala, there’s a validation of a trend.

With the inertia that a corporation as big as a blue whale needs to move, the alternative folk rock scene has been accepted into the mainstream music world of the Grammy’s.

Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, The Decemberists and the Civil Wars are all nominated for one or more awards.
The groovier the Black Keys are back after last year prize.
Rockstars as Eddie Vedder, leader of Pearl Jam, approached the vein with an improbable project titled Ukulele which also got a classic “you’re-famous-so-you’re-in” Grammy’s nomination.

Last year Grammy’s it was Arcade Fire‘s turn to enter the elite club. It made all the orchestral, ‘pompous-pop’, grand ensembles rock a reality for the humans reading beyond Pitchfork.

This year not a single band but several examples of rock music inspired, a way or another, by American roots is in and some (Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes I would predict) have real chances to win the prestigious (?) award.

Last decade the independent scene was lead by indie-guitar art-rock bands and leather jackets such as the Strokes, followed in the UK by the likes of The Libertines.

This decade, or at least these last 5 years, saw the implosion of those indie-guitar bands due to an overcrowded scene and lacklustre ideas. Simultaneously the acoustic/folk affair grew both side of the Atlantic.
From Fleet Foxes to Noah and The Whale, from Emmy the Great to Band of Horses from Bon Iver to Wilco all grew exponentially and set the standard. No surprise big labels wanted their slice of the cake. Chart-pop edulcorated versions arrived including what the Guardian beautifully described as the ‘New Boring’ scene cashing on the likes of Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling and, above all, Adele. So far the biggest selling artist of the century. Loads of Grammys nominations this year to her too, acoustic music is about to conquering the world.

Okkervil River are not among the bands nominated to the Grammys because they have been more pioneering. Their best albums were released four or five years ago, at the sunrise of this vein (hence pioneers) and far too early to be noticed by the Grammy’s blue whale.

Okkervil River music is somewhere at the meeting point between the indie scene of the beginning of the decade and the folk infuse setting that followed.
They were too late (and too Southern) for the first and too early for the latter.

Formed in Austin, Texas, by Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg their first appearances, needless to say, were at the SXSW, the festival showcasing new music and happening in their town.
It was the end of the nineties, of that original line-up probably only Will Sheff, the singer and undisputed leader, is still in the group.

Sheff and Meiburg have been working together also on another project: Shearwater.
With a more psychedelic infused sound, Shearwater success caused the departure of Meiburg from Okkervil River and of Sheff from Shearwater. The two basically took one band each and went their own ways after about 10 years.

Back to Okkervil River, it needed a big effort to break through a restrict group of hardcore fans. That day arrived with the release of Black Sheep Boy in 2005, to me, still their masterpiece. A concept album set around the heroin addiction of country singer Tim Hardin is a record full of emotionally intense songs.
It captures at the first listening and never go away.

From that album Okkervil River journey has been on a much more comfortable stream bed. Black Sheep Boy sold in the tenths of thousands, charted Billboard and opened the doors to the following albums. In the meantime the scene became more welcoming to this music, Pitchfork started being called PitchfoLk and praised most of their releases since.

A legend as big as Roky Erickson, 13th Floor Elevators legendary leader, asked them to be the backing band for his 2010 True Love Cast Out All Evil LP. Not a very convincing record, surely not Okkervil River fault. It would have been even less convincing without Will Sheff and friends contribution.

Okkervil River arrive at Koko on a November night after almost a year continuously touring their latest record, I Am Very Far, one of their more folkier and another big success.

As soon as Will Sheff gains the Koko stage to set his instruments the crowd show love. His nerdy intellectual look, including a brown suit and thick spectacles, reminds me of a Texan version of Jarvis Cocker.
He is the frontman, the other members are part of his project.
Lauren Gurgiolo, who has joined the group only few years ago, has become the most important and effective member. Her guitar parts work perfectly along Sheff‘s most melodramatic vocals.

Concert formulas and set-lists are nowadays standardised. Unsurprisingly the show rotates around the last album with insertion of tunes from the past catalogue that become more concentrate towards the end.

Nevertheless a nice version of For Real happens while I am still shooting in the pit. When the show gets to the end the more crowd pleasing songs arrive together with the shivers going through people’s spine. As a good wine, they spread their intense flavour in the air.

The band comes back for an encore that goes back in time. It opens with a cover of Ted Lucas It Is So Nice To Get Stoned and closes with Westfall, picked from the 10 years old debut album, Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See.
Such a perfect show, that proves how important is to be playing live, relentlessly, for months.

I now understand why I hadn’t loved this band enough. Because I haven’t seen them live. Now, who reads liveon35mm could say that it is not the first time I say this, and you’re right. Reason is that I choose to see mainly bands that are renowned to play great live sets. So it’s not coincidence just a bit of lazy writing.

Okkervil River will now have a deserved break, enjoy Christmas festivity and celebrate the new year in style, thinking over a whisky or two what to do next.

To please the fans they have just released a free EP, Golden Opportunities 2, containing some covers. It opens with Ted Lucas It Is So Nice To Get Stoned played at this gig, it can be downloaded in high quality mp3 from their website (link here).
One more reason you can can stay in touch with the band at the following links: [website][facebook][twitter][spotify][myspace]

Photo tip

If Annie Leibovitz wasn’t enough, backing iPhone 4S camera as a proper camera replacement, her financial problems must have caused a sell-out of her proper gear, yesterday on the Observer there was an interesting comparison daring the unspeakable.

The Observer put together iPhone shots vs Canon Mark II pro DSLR and concludes in some condition a phone is better.
Seen through a careful eye of who knows the subject (read: a photographer) there is nothing to compare between the two.
If some of the iPhone pictures (especially the ones taken in tricky light conditions) seem better than the Canon DSLR it is because the iPhone does on the spot what a DSLR user is expected to control in front of a proper monitor. Post-Editing. No photographer would pay a couple of thousands pounds to have a camera taking control.

What the article, instead, fails to say is where the iPhone is indeed better than the DSLR. It’s not on quality, it’s on versatility.
These Okkervil River photos above, proper shot on a DSLR and edited on a computer, took me some time downloading and editing to be ready.
A few shots taken in sequence on my phone, stitched into a panoramic set (below click to enlarge) and uploaded on facebook, twitter and G+ all at the same time, took the outro of one of the Okkervil River less interesting songs to be online.

Both the iPhone and the pro DSLRs take pictures and they can take the same subject but they are not the same photo.
As you wouldn’t use instagram to show your portfolio, you wouldn’t enter a pit with an iPhone to cover a gig.

~ by Valerio on December 5, 2011.

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