Okkervil River + Titus Andronicus, Variety Playhouse

I started this blog maybe six years ago when I was writing a senior honors thesis and needed space for non-academic writing. Somehow, it became vaguely academic, because I don't operate in any other mode, and eventually I just grew tired of keeping up with everything. That and I started blogging elsewhere about a number of other things. Now that I'm starting the dissertation, I'll probably come back to it again, because writing about music gets my other geeky juices flowing. And ew, get your mind out of the gutter.

For those of you who still have this thing in your google reader, you probably know that my favorite band is The Magnetic Fields, and that I dabble heavily in Mr. Merritt's other projects. Ranking bands always seemed silly to me, but at this point in my life, I can definitely say that my other favorite bands, in precisely this order, are now: 2. Okkervil River, 3. Titus Andronicus. There are of course, many others, but for now this is the holy trinity.

So I got to see the latter two tonight, and it was probably the 2nd best show I've ever seen, second to The Magnetic Fields in New York last March, which I consider to have been a truly religious experience.

In a lot of ways, Okkervil River and Titus Andronicus are perfect foils and that is precisely why this tour pairing works. Both have charismatic frontmen, a hot brunette lady, and some bearded fellows playing various instruments. But for all of the softness that imbues everything Will Sheff writes (no matter how dark), Titus Andronicus is loud, edgy, epic, and badass. This is a band that is not afraid of songs that are almost entirely instrumental, incredibly complex, and last like 14 minutes. They played kind of a short set, but it had all of my favorites, including "Richard II or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions and the Madness of Crowds," which, parenthetically, is one of the best rock songs written since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

I saw Titus a few weeks ago on their last tour, kind of on accident. My mind was blown by their energy, the number of folks in their band who play multiple instruments simultaneously and extremely well, the wonderful scream-a-long quality of most of the songs, the genius use of piano, lyrical prowess, and just the general impression that they had their shit together. That was a longer set, one in which they played almost all of their songs and the crowd sang along happily. This set, though shorter, generated just as much frantic energy, with everyone jumping up and down and singing along. One gets the feeling, whether while being in the space of a live music venue or listening to a record at home, that whatever new genre is being produced by the complexity of these moments is one that is about painting landscapes of sound and telling real and fictive histories, all at the same time.

Just like this, actually:

That is also pretty much how I'd describe Okkervil River. A few months ago, when I had high tea with Stephin Merritt, he repeated a story I heard at their last show, in which he was in a store where they were playing an Okkervil River album. Stephin was so impressed that he believed himself to have found a nemesis with a near-equivalent ability to write lyrics and arrange instruments. High praise coming from a man who only likes a select number of very good things.

The set began and ended with songs from the new album, I Am Very Far. Frankly, I wasn't too obsessed with it until I heard these songs live. The album is kind of big and swelling compared to the more understated albums of theirs I prefer. But there was a lot of dancing and awesomeness, so I will accept it.

Other standouts were:
-"A Girl In Port" - the rest of the band left the stage for the first half of the song, leaving Will Sheff standing in a bright white spotlight. He was almost whispering the song while the rest of us stood there in silence. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen and heard. I still feel like that moment is giving me the kind of hug that leaves you breathless. They also did "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe," "John Allyn Smith Sails," and "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene" from The Stage Names. I was really hoping they'd play "Plus Ones" but I don't remember them doing it.
-"A Stone" followed by "So I Come Back Waiting" - this was an amazing combination of two of my favorite songs from my favorite Okkervil River album. They were also played with just Sheff on stage. I never thought "A Stone" could sound so ethereal. "So I Come Back Waiting," a song I play a lot on the ukulele, was just so deeply satisfying to sing along to. Also from Black Sheep Boy, they also played "Song of Our So-Called Friend" and "Black." There is something deeply cathartic about these song, especially because I listened to this album a lot in a particularly difficult time of my life.
-From what I remember, they only did "Lost Coastlines" from The Stand-Ins, and it was during the encore.

Its been awhile since I've *really* been in love with music (excluding Stephin Merritt's) the way that I am now. So maybe I'll start writing about real things again soon, including my new album crush, I Am Very Far. Until then, enjoy this lovely cover of "Pop Lie" from Bird of Youth: