Will Sheff (Photo by Bret Curry)
In his recent solo appearance at Black Cat, Will Sheff played “Okkervil River, RIP.”
The song was actually recorded with Okkervil River, the alt-country/psych-folk band he led for nearly two decades. It was a bit of a farewell to the old and a welcoming of the new: Sheff is now recording and performing under his own name, having recently released Nothing Special.
If you’re wondering what has changed here, the answer is, it’s really a matter of a name. Sheff has a distinctive sonic imprint, and it carried over from Okkervil River. It’s been referred to as “cosmic American music,” but it’s as much indie rock as anything. There are no fiddles or banjos here, but there are synths. The sound is as much indie-rock as alt-country; I don’t hear much of a twang.
Writing this article places me in a bind: I don’t want to spend too much time talking about Okkervil River, as Will has made the chance to break from that name. But even in his new direction — insofar as it is a new direction — he continues to be shaped by that past. It’s a long time since Sheff and fellow graduates from Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire decamped for Austin; Sheff hasn’t lived in Austin in some time.
The great guitarist, songwriter, and producer Ry Cooder has called the process of writing, recording, and touring “the treadmill of horror.” I don’t know if Will has heard that one, but given the sentiments he expressed at the show at Black Cat on Nov. 15, I think it would hit home. He spoke of meeting a friend for dinner before the show and drawing a blank when he tried to recall where he was yesterday. There is another Will in his band — Will Gray — and, the other day, he referred to him as “Will Sheff.”
Stream Nothing Special by Will Sheff on Spotify:
Okkervil River never got really big, and as The New Yorker describes in a recent profile and review, Sheff has been forced to reconsider his rock & roll dreams. It’s a sobering reminder that many of the artists we love and who bring us so much joy are often struggling, both financially and emotionally. The biggest acts travel in a fair amount of comfort, but for most of these folks, it’s a real grind. Early in the show, Will remarked on a conversation in the audience, saying it was “distracting the people who’d driven eight hours in a van today and who are trying to put on a show. Do with that information what you will.”
The rebuke was delivered firmly but gently; it was obvious Sheff was frustrated, but he said this calmly. It’s not hard to understand why, sometimes, these kinds of statements aren’t delivered quite so politely; there are a lot of people who have no idea how to behave in public. Fortunately, the crowd responded as desired, quieting down and paying attention to the rest of the set.
A lighter moment in the set came when Will mentioned his dogsitter had sent him photos of his pet, who he hadn’t seen in some time, and it really cheered him up. This animal also inspired the song “Dog” on Nothing Special.
Will opened with the title cut from Nothing Special. New songs made up half the set: “Estrangement Zone,” “In The Thick Of It,” “The Spiral Season,” and “Holy Man.” But he hasn’t made a sharp break with his old material, which made up the other half of the set: “Savannah Smiles,” the aforementioned “Okkervil River, RIP,” “Down the Deep River,” and set closer “So Come Back, I An Waiting,” from the band’s seminal Black Sheep Boy concept album. The encore consisted of two more Okkervil River songs: “”Judey On A Street” and “No Key, No Plan.”
Aside from that one awkward moment, the show went down with a very mellow atmosphere, with the audience giving their deep attention to Sheff’s carefully crafted lyrics. The named may have changed, but the brand is still the same, and the music is great.