Give Will Sheff a can of dog food, and he’ll turn it into an anthem.
Over the course of Okkervil River’s two-hour set at the Fillmore Tuesday night, Sheff played the Rock God; constantly throwing his guitar behind his back, wrapping his grasshopper-thin frame around the microphone stand, towering over the crowd and occasionally falling onto lead guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo. Blink your eyes and you might have been on the set of School of Rock.
Fortunately, Sheff is backed by a group of musicians both precise and bombastic enough to make his Rock God dreams a reality, creating enough sound and energy to fill an arena.
Drummer Cully Symington constantly propelled the songs forward with booming, tight fills without breaking a sweat while multi-instrumentalist Michael St. Clair filled in all the little holes with trumpet, trombone, keyboards and assorted percussion. Gurgiolo alternately added chiming washes of guitar sound and snappy riffs that helped pull songs into classic-rock territory.
The band seemed most excited to be playing material from their most recent record, The Silver Gymnasium, released this September on ATO. While songs like the opening one-two punch of “It Was My Season” and “From a Balcony” are quintessential Okkervil River, full of dramatic crescendos and countless opportunities for sing-alongs and fist-pumping, other songs showed something new: both “Stay Young,” (which sounds like it could fit easily on a Miley Cyrus record with its synthesizers and muted guitar parts), and “Walking Without Frankie” are less about hyperbolic dynamics and more about finding tight, hypnotic grooves that came across much better on stage than on record. These songs stretch, never changing much, but they give the band time to loosen up and get lost in the rhythms.
The highlight of the set was the re-tooled and hyped-up “The Valley,” the only song of the evening on which Sheff switched from acoustic guitar to electric. Although the recorded version, the first track on 2001’s I am Very Far, is menacing and taut, the live performance kicks it up a few notches, adding enough distorted guitar and thrashy drums to get even some older fans banging their heads.
For the most part, the set was anthem after anthem after anthem, to the point that the songs blended together a bit. No one seemed to mind, though. Fifteen years in, Okkervil River is at the top of their game and going strong. Their performance felt like a celebration, a victory lap. Their energy is infectious, and as they left the stage you could see it on the faces around you: starry-eyed and eager for the next time.