Fun Fun Fun
Okkervil River made its reputation and rose to prominence as purveyors of sad folk-y songs. That’s definitely the material that marked the band’s tenure as an Austin local act, before frontman Will Sheff’s 2006 relocation to Brooklyn. But it’s been a while since that was what the band really offered in a live setting, and the Fun Fun Fun Fest performance on the Orange Stage on Friday was another firm reminder that this is a Big Rock Band now.
Maybe it was all the nostalgia swirling around the other stages—a Murder City Devils reunion! An aborted attempt at a Misfits set by Danzig! Public Enemy in full effect!—or maybe it was the fact that this marked the band’s eighth Austin performance of 2011, or maybe it was all of the Ryan Gosling chatter buzzing through the crowd that had us looking for a sensitive hero. Whatever it was, the fact that the band’s early Austin days, and the material that came with it, has largely been stricken from the band’s repertoire was kind of a bummer. Hey Girl, the river is deep and the river is wide / and the girl that I love is on the other side / she wants to move to Kansas City / move to Kansas City / move, pretty baby, where the sky is so blue….
But Okkervil River isn’t that band anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time. It’s a uniquely Austin situation—falling in love with a band when they’re regulars on the Flipnotics patio or at the Hole in the Wall, and then feeling a little bit abandoned when, even after they’ve played your city eight times this year, they’re never going to be that band again.
By the same token, the band that Okkervil River is now is great at what it does. Yeah, it’s a Big Rock Band, and the material that Sheff writes is designed to fill a stage with a lot of noise. That’s always been true—even when he was a local playing the inside room at Emo’s, it was clear that was the vision he had for the band—but it seems like it took some of the opportunities that come with international success for him to realize that dream.
What the band delivered on the Orange Stage was a full-on rock show, with Sheff staggering wildly across the stage and pulling off mic stand tricks. The moves were good during “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe,” and the energetic rocker that opens this year’s I Am Very Far, “The Valley,” sounded inspired. Part of that is due to the success of the Fun Fun Fun Fest arrangement, too—at any point during the set, it was easy enough to walk up and claim a spot about 20 feet from the stage, which kept the show intimate despite the backdrop of the Austin skyline, and the sound was loud and crisp, not the sort of half-assed mix that you sometimes find at festivals. But the band, as rollicking and full as its music is now, is still fully engaging. And you can’t script moments like the sun setting behind the stage during “Your Past Life As A Blast.”
So even if it is just the nostalgia trip that Fun Fun Fun Fest painstakingly curates in its booking that made us miss the circa-2001-2004 Austin-based version of Okkervil River, there’s another reminder about the band from the Orange Stage as well: no matter what the songs they play sound like, they’re still pretty great.