San Francisco Bathhouse
March 6 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

WILL SHEFF announced to the crowd as soon as he entered on stage with considerable frustration that Hillary Clinton won primaries in Ohio and Texas. He then cut loose with all his vitriol onto a brutal version of the fragile ‘The President’s Dead’. And never lost that intensity. Sheff clutched that microphone like it was a life-jacket, singing as if someone had a gun to his head, with his words flowing, lucid and cutting, towards the awestruck audience. His voice was even more impressive live, powerful, resonant, and given the power of an immense live band behind him, it was quite something. I’ve rarely seen a set that was so perfectly timed, so perfectly in control of its dynamics and its structure. The lulls, the segues, the explosions, they were all delivered so damn brilliantly. I have a propensity for a wayward and all-too-frequent use of superlatives, but Okkervil River’s was one of the best live performances I think I may have ever seen. And I emphasise the word “ever”.

Ladybird, that lovely French band opened the proceedings, playing their off-beat melodies, and pseudo-twee sensibilities to a watchful crowd. They ran through a few new numbers, and entertained with their overall refreshing sound. They needed to do something with their electric guitar – it was wasted playing exactly the same notes for most part as the acoustic guitar, and being too low on the mix. Not saying that the guitarist was superfluous because he did some excellent percussion work too, but more could have been made with the lead guitar.

There should have been a bigger crowd to witness Okkervil River’s great performance. But since a clueless major label took charge of publicity (i.e. pretend it’s not happening by burying the band deep in the sand and chucking cheap fireworks around as a diversion), the crowd was only half-full. But the crowd who were there, were almost unanimously blown away by the passion, the intellectual vigour, the rock n roll genius of the band. It turned out to be guitarist Brian Cassidy’s last performance with the band, and his furious guitar-work will be surely missed by audiences. The drumming was pounding, the interplay heart-attack tight, the riffs anthemic, the miscellaneous instrumentation adding colour at the right moments. It helps having great, great songs too.

‘The President’s Dead’ segued into the gorgeous ‘Black’, as the band concentrated mainly on the material from Black Sheep Boy and their brilliant 2007 album The Stage Names. Other set highlights include the tribute to poet John Berryman, ‘John Allyn Smith Sails’, with the ‘Sloop John B’ coda sounding positively Mangumesque with its use of fuzzed out guitars and trumpets; the brilliant flow between two of their best tracks, ‘Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe’ and ‘For Real’; and the fantastic main set closer ‘Unless It’s Kicks’. I can’t emphasise how impressive this show was, a show that had me (and other people I’ve talked to) buzzing and awake for hours afterwards. Not bad for a “midlevel band” really.