Reviewed on Friday February 21
There’s always been a sonic vastness to Ernest Ellis’ music, but the builds which drove their intricate 2011 record, Kings Canyon, have blown out into something a whole lot bigger since then. With a six-piece band, synth, brass, and a full-bodied energy led by the earnest Roland Ellis, their new sound owes so much to Springsteen that the eventual cover – ‘State Trooper’ – is not at all out of place.
By the time Okkervil River take the stage, the too-small venue is heaving. I’m sardine-packed in the front, crammed between two different archetypes of Okkervil River Fans – which, wonderfully, each reflect the two types of songs the band does best.
To my right, a trio of drunk, merry revellers stomp and yell along to the wild, raucous numbers that make up the majority of tonight’s set: the latest single ‘On A Balcony’; the loose and epic ‘The Valley’; the huge, electrifying ‘Black’. The enormous pair of encore closers, ‘Down Down The Deep River’ and ‘Unless It’s Kicks’, has frontman Will Sheff thrashing around the stage with the relentless, jagged urgency his band has never been quite able to reign in – and the crowd, as always, is enamoured.
To my left, there’s the other type of Okkervil River fan, with the thick black fringe and the enormous eyes. She silently mouths all the words to the rare ‘Kansas City’, digs her nails into her wrist during the most desperate yelps of ‘For Real’, and actually cries through the always-stunning crowd-silencer ‘A Stone’, from their mythic Black Sheep Boy. (The last time they played this song in Sydney was at Manning Bar in 2008; they followed it up with ‘So Come Back, I Am Waiting’, a one-two punch in the feels that’s become the stuff of folklore.)
Okkervil’s latest album, The Silver Gymnasium, is their first on ATO Records, after six releases through indie favourite Jagjaguwar. The album is more inward-looking, as Sheff sings of his land-locked childhood in New Hampshire, and the sound has changed a little, too: Gymnasium is an easier listen than its predecessors, jauntier and approachable and, as many lamented, somewhat sanitised.
But while the production and motifs have changed on record, it’s the same blustery live act it’s always been: the unbridled, chaotic angst of a hyper-literate frontman, whose band tries desperately to hold steady around him.