Okkervil River is an improbable band name, difficult to remember, impossible to spell. It gives very little away. The odds I would find myself in a Camden estate pub for a folk open mic on a Sunday afternoon were decimal. The chances of seeing anything decent were even more remote. It is a wonder I made it through the door. Maybe I did it out of cynicism. When you've learnt not to expect anything from the improbable and the impossible happens to you, it is difficult to come out of it intact. Of course the impossible happened.
It all started fairly inauspiciously with the usual trail of Joni Mitchell wannabes and the displacement of lyrical references from Nashville to the Holloway road. The pub crowd was a weird mixture of social services clients, folksy women, bulky stout drinkers, broke arty types and Japanese students. The presence of the latter is usually a sure sign that an upcoming band with potential critical acclaim is in the vicinity.
When Will Sheff got on stage, or more precisely to the centre of the semi-circle of tables by the bay window, I instantly understood they had come for him. The setting was the same as for those who preceded him, a mike and an acoustic guitar, yet it was clear from the second he opened his mouth that he was something else.
Most performers who produce themselves before us, especially when they do so without the possibility of hiding themselves behind a wall of electric guitars and synths, act as a black hole on public attention, which they suck in and process into enough energy to feebly light their way through the set they offer as entertainment. The public can leave with the impression of being conned. But when Sheff starts to sing, however softly, the chemistry is reversed: something shines through out of nowhere. And it feels all the more miraculous as it comes out of a frail body which leans on the mike as on a guiding stick. I expected the charm to be broken any second, and got ready to rush to the rescue of a dispossessed body collapsing to the ground. But nothing of the sort happened. His band mates stepped in and the full line-up of Okkervil River started their epic performance.
Okkervil River's music is not easily classifiable. It has been branded alt country, a lazy conclusion to tag a band from Austin Texas who have the word "river" in their name and who make an occasional use of the banjo. It is about as preposterous as trying to pass Avril Lavigne as emo punk because she was once made to squeak about a skating spoilt brat. And it is criminal to menace the unknowing public with the spectre of Billy Ray Cyrus when Okkervil River's music is a thousand miles from the dumb bales and the righteous barns of the square-dancing world. For it is full of uncomfortably precise depictions of brittle moments and fragile feelings, daintily detailing the unspoken, baring family secrets and burying love, enveloping a lyrical world that any other music than theirs would steamroll obliviously.
Again, it felt miraculous that such fragile beauty was able to bloom in the otherwise unforgiving surroundings of a small pubstrokevenue, where the performance is at the mercy of a sneeze, a loud drinking party, a senseless mobile ringtone. The performance was that literally, a triumphant achievement, blowing the décor off and taking us wherever it wanted to take us, far from Malden road, maybe to another time and another place, a memory, Sheff's or our own, it didn't matter anymore.
Oscar Wilde was so right when he said that "the old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything". While we walk through life with a thick skin hidden under fashionable t-shirts, hardened to everything yet always aiming for comfort, steering away from the unexpected, the uncontrollable, Sheff keeps running into the wall and gets up and runs again with all his might, with the determination of an angry teenager. And we watch with a mixture of admiration and sadness, for we know the price of such unconditional behaviour but we had forgotten its value. It is no coincidence that Okkervil River received the endorsement of Daniel Johnston, the bruised artist who inspired legions of aching youth including Kurt Cobain. It is also no surprise that Sheff chose to perform Neil Young's "Pardon my Heart" and carried it as if it were his own. And it is no contradiction that the performance radiated with overwhelming joy: the sight of Wurlitzer player Jonathan Meiburg wriggling and beaming like a child on Xmas day, the glances and smiles exchanged on stage when the music took them over, made me wish I were big black and beautiful and twice as old, so that I could justify the irresistible urge to crush their little heads on my bosom, pinch their cheeks, ruffle their hair, dust off their shirts and tell them they're good kids.
After they performed their "Kansas City" with the desperate energy of love before goodbyes, giving it a dimension that still needs to be captured on record, I suddenly found myself hearing my downstairs neighbours play shite music and I wondered whether it did all really happen, or whether it was a figment of my imagination, which only lasted a second while I was standing there in the middle of the living-room.
Then I felt a tingle and noticed a little scar right by the heart. I hadn't dreamt. Like salt in the wound, Okkervil River's music makes a permanent incision in your thick skin.