Okkervil River is one of those bands that I would see just about anywhere for just about any price. When we went down to SxSw in March, we stood in line for over an hour to get into an afternoon show they were headlining, and the bands before them all went long so they could only play for 20 minutes or so. It was disappointing, but that short set was one of the best we saw that weekend. So, when I saw that they were coming to Chicago for a show, I didn’t even bother asking their press person for tickets. I bought them the second they went on sale and never thought twice about it. About a month later I found out the opener would be The Felice Brothers.
Since the release of Yonder Is The Clock, Felice Brothers has been one of my favorite bands. So odd, so interesting. Their first three big records are all pretty rootsy Americana country rock, but the latest, Celebration, Florida, is completely different. It has the same foundation as the first three, but the band gets much more ambitious playing with production and getting a little prog rock at some points. We saw them back in May at Lincoln Hall, and they played a really good set, but I felt this performance was far better.
A couple things stand out to me about their set last night. The first being that I feel like The Felice Brothers are the George Lucas of indie-rock. Not in the bad “he raped my childhood by changing Star Wars” kind of way, but that they’re constantly evolving their work. The songs we heard last night were entirely different from when we first heard them just a few months ago. It’s definitely more noticeable with the newer songs, as they’re still trying to perfect them live, but some of the older songs are getting new treatments as well. The most noticeable difference may have been “Ponzi.” It seemed much more amped up and intense.
The second thing that leaps out in a live show, to me, is how talented Ian Felice is on the guitar. A lot of that gets buried on the records, but he can wail when he wants to. And I love that about half the time he appears to have no spatial capacity on the stage, like he has no idea how he got where he is or why he’s there. Then all of a sudden it dawns on him and he picks his guitar back up and starts playing again. It’s a funny contrast to the rest of the band, as Christmas, Greg, and James seem to know exactly what they’re doing at all times (I don’t know about Dave, I couldn’t see him where I was standing).
I think my favorite part of the set was when everyone left the stage except James and Ian, and they played “Got What I Need.” I think it’s nice to see just the two of them perform together. Actually, I wouldn’t mind a whole show of just them playing. Maybe sometime down the line they’ll announce a string of small bar dates where they just come out and play for free food and drinks (I can dream).
Sidenote on this first set because two funny things happened: 1. I bought tickets and then asked Felice Brothers press person if we could just get a photo pass. She was happy to oblige, but when I got to the will call window they hadn’t received the list yet. So I said I needed a photo pass and the girl asked if Kari was my plus one and was about to hand me tickets. I told her I already had some, but quickly realized after I walked away that I should have taken them and given them to the people in line who had no idea who was playing and just wanted something to do. 2. After the show we went to Forever Yogurt (naturally) and on the way we ran into James Felice walking back to the venue. I said hi and and shook his hand, told him they played a great show and all that. He was super nice and very cool. If you ever get a chance to talk with him, take it. He’s a very gracious guy.
Okkervil River came out and played a crazy set that mixed in a lot of older stuff with the I Am Very Far material. When I saw them before they played two or three songs off the new record and only a couple old songs, so it was a nice change for me. They opened with “Wake And Be Fine” and followed that with the song that got me in to the band, “For Real.” I was surprised how balanced they kept the show. Usually a band touring behind a new record makes the set very heavy on the new stuff. I guess it’s been a while since they played Chicago, so they wanted to give the fans what they wanted.
The audience practically exploded as the band meandered into “So Come Back, I Am Waiting” off Black Sheep Boy. It was eight minutes of pure bliss for many in attendance. I’m sure people who only know the band from their more recent songs probably thought, “what the hell is this?” It was good though. I love it when bands pull stuff from WAY back and reward loyal fans.
Those same audience members exploding before probably came near fainting when Sheff pulled out “Westfall” on their asses. That song is so geniusly written that I think anyone could sing it and get applause, but with each emphatic “Evil don’t look like anything,” Will proves he’s the only one that ever should.
I was pretty impressed with how well OR pulled off some of the more extravagantly produced songs from their records. Some bands do it really well and others are complete failures. It seems they know exactly what they are capable of live, and take it as far as they can. Everything sounded great, especially Will’s vocals. With the amount of singing gorgeously/screaming that he does on stage, I’m amazed he can talk after a show.
I’d be a fool if I didn’t mention the guitar playing of Lauren Gurgiolo. She absolutely shred all night. A lot of her more impressive stuff on the album gets mixed in with other things and you can’t hear just how amazing it is, but seeing it done live you realize how much energy and focus goes into each part of a song. And for that I’d also like to point out Patrick Pestorius on bass and adding some nice vocals on “Lost Coastlines” and Cully Symington for laying down the beat. And whoever that guy was in the background that played about ten different instruments, each masterfully, well done.
These two bands remind me a lot of one another, so I’m glad they could play together. I hope that those at the show who weren’t aware of the awesomeness of The Felice Brothers ran home and got a couple of their albums off iTunes, and the people who started with Okkervil River at The Stage Names go back in time and grab their earlier stuff as well.