What does success mean to artists in the current music landscape, beyond mere survival?
One answer is longevity; another is impact.
On Friday at the Black Cat, Okkervil River demonstrated their achievements in longevity and impact to a sold out crowd. Billed as "An Evening with Okkervil River," the band eased into, exploded through, and even managed to shed new light on their first great album (in what would become a run of three straight), Black Sheep Boy.
Released in 2005, Black Sheep Boy delivered on the promise of earlier efforts. Drawing from a cover of a Tim Hardin song about heroin addiction, the album plunges into themes of devotion, heartbreak, and loss. But that is not to say it is slow or monotonous. Each song has its own specific rhythm and color, with tracks like "For Real" and "Black" eliminating any doubt about whether the band can, or does, rock.
The most indelible characteristic of Okkervil River is its lone surviving member, Will Scheff. His lyrics are hyper-literate and crammed into the corner of each song, his heart is visible on the sleeve of his very thin t-shirt, and yet he knows when to use simplicity as a hammer: "We're fucked, we're fucked, we're fucked." And what Scheff's voice lacks in sonic depth, it more than makes up for in expression and the striking effect of seeming to be on the brink of collapse.
Fittingly, Scheff began the show alone on the stage playing songs that led up to Black Sheep Boy, including the excellent "Hidden Track". Simple guitar and lyrics gave the band a starting point from which to build.
And so they did. The band replicated every studio effect and played the album note for note, replete with muted trumpets, white noise, and recorded speech. It was a stunning reminder of the fluency of this band in so many different styles. Former member Jonathan Meiburg (lead singer of Shearwater) joined a few songs in, as did Beth Wawerna for the bittersweet "Get Big" and other tracks. Each valley sunk as low as the subject of the source material -- Hardin's worst bouts with heroin addiction, and each peak rang out with a rebellious spirit and hope. The penultimate, climactic song on the album, "So Come Back I Am Waiting," encapsulates these dramatic moments. It was impossible not to shout along.
Wherever the crowd was ten years ago when Black Sheep was released, they were fully engaged on Friday. They knew every note and word. The band and audience celebrated the album together.
As if that weren't enough, Scheff and company played about half of the EP Black Sheep Boy Appendix for an encore. These tracks demonstrated that the band possessed a special vitality during this period, as even the material it rejected has not aged a day in the past ten years. If Okkervil River similarly celebrates other albums, fans have a lot to look forward to in 2017 and 2018, which will be the anniversaries of The Stage Names (2007) and The Stand Ins (2008).