There were two very distinct atmospheres within the State Street Theater on Friday for the Austin, Texas-based indie rock band Okkervil River’s short but energetic set. With the crowd — which could not have been more than 150 college and high school students — concentrated almost exclusively in a plaid flannel mob that did not extend past 20 feet from the stage, the rest of the theater became a cavernous and desolate backdrop.
As the group blasted their way through their set, not stopping to pause or acknowledge the crowd until four songs in, the passion and energy exuded by lead singer Will Sheff’s mesmerizing, and paradoxically controlled, shouting was palpable (often literally for those lucky enough to be standing in front of him). However, being periodically showered with spit was a small price to pay for the intimacy and authentic energy offered by the group, as each short song exploded from the stage with precision and vitality. With the group opting to focus on a set of faster tempo songs from all of their albums, save for one “romantic” (Sheff’s words) foray with “Girl in Port” off of The Stage Names and an intimate, harmonica-infused slow track from one of their earliest works, the small sampling of songs that spanned their entire thirteen year existence was just enough to leave everybody craving more.
However, taking several steps back into the theater and removing yourself from the small crowd provided for a completely different, and almost surreal, perspective. Nearing the end of the concert, after repeatedly turning our heads from the display on stage to look back at the totally empty ornate theater, my friend and I, along with several other tired concertgoers, moved back into the vacant seats to watch the encore. This allowed enough perspective for my friend to note that every member of the group, consisting of four men and one woman — Lauren Gurgiolo on the electric guitar — was sporting identical mid-length mop haircuts (this observation excludes the very talented, but bald, pianist Justin Sherburn, who we excuse due to genetic obstacles). It also provided for an almost inexplicable sense of mild disappointment. This feeling did not arise so much from the performance, but more from a general sense that for a college town noted for its taste in music, the size of the crowd did not come close to matching the level of talent on display. It was almost embarrassing when the group came out to a near empty theater, with house lights glaring, that more resembled a scene from the try-outs for a middle school musical than a rock concert featuring one the most talented bands going. Even though the house lights were quickly turned off, the impression of a massive but bare theater, only sparsely populated by a collection kids milling about, may explain why, after just two songs, Sheff decided to remove his thick-framed spectacles, and finish the concert with impaired vision.
This is not at all an indictment of the people who actually showed up to the concert — who, when concentrated into the tight mob in front of the stage, were clearly knowledgeable and passionate fans of the group — but rather an explanation for why the concert, while great, could have been even better. The small crowd, along with Sheff’s meta-commenting on the lackluster performance of the lighting crew and dysfunctional microphones, created a sense of amateurishness, outside of the group’s control, that was incongruent with the great talent of the band. Also, for a group and lead singer so reliant on passion and emotions in theirs songs, there were a couple of times, most notably during slower parts of the show, and during moments of between-song banter, that the smallness of the crowd, and the undoubtedly disorienting perspective from on-stage of looking beyond the huddled fans and into the vacant theater, that the group seemed to be a bit thrown off and almost disappointed themselves.
Ultimately, despite the odd atmosphere and distracting feedback from the broken microphones, Okkervil River delivered an amazing concert. While ostensibly on tour promoting their most recent album, I Am Very Far, the band did a great job mixing up the set list with songs from all of their albums, which no doubt satisfied longtime fans and people looking to hear new music. From their initial explosion on stage with the single from I Am Very Far, “Wake and Be Fine,” to the climax of the concert, a pumped up and interactive rendition of “Lost Coastlines” from The Stand Ins, there was very little time to process one great song before you were engulfed in the chorus of the next one.
For a band that has been going since 1998 with six full albums under their belt, it’s pretty amazing how refreshing and unique they are able to be, regardless of crowd size, venue and matching haircuts.