Saturday, August 11, 2007

review: okkervil river, concord, nh, 7/14/07

a lot of people think i'm from new hampshire, and i'm not, but i don't do much to correct them (i feel much more at home in new hampshire than in massachusetts, where i actually grew up). people who are truly from new hampshire don't often make that mistake, not just because they don't know any (nasty) stories about my family, but because there's an unspoken understanding that if i really were from new hampshire-- grew up there with the personality i've always had-- it would not really feel like home. i wouldn't be so excited about coming back to its thrift stores and forests, long drives and fuck you attitude, police logs and state fairs.

like okkervil river, my friend rebecca also lives in austin but is from new hampshire, and she loves nh, but she also left at 14 to go to high school in boston, which is where we met. i'll never forget our first meeting in mr. connolly's english class-- she had on a ramones t-shirt and plaid converse. i would later find out that her knowledge of the ramones was limited to their appearance in "rock n'roll high school," but there was an unspoken bond, a silent, "gabba gabba hey, one of us!" it's funny to me that i decided she'd be my friend based on her t-shirt and shoes, yet here we are, 15 years later, still friends, still bonding over a band, going together to see okkervil river in the capital city of my adopted/her home state.

the show was put together by some guy on the san antonio spurs who, like rebecca and okkervil river, grew up in new hampshire and ended up in texas. unlike them, he got his start playing ball at the concord boys and girls club and wanted to give back. and since all people from new hampshire can name anyone of any note who's also from new hampshire, he reached out to okkervil. i don't doubt he's a fan (more on that later), but when you think about it, the musical selection was rather slim-- the short list of notable new hampshire musicians includes:
-jon spencer (just him, no blues explosion, not the dead west wing guy)
-gg allin (dead, and in life, flung poop)
-at least half of aerosmith (won't drive south of exit 10 on rte 89 for less than 25k)
-mark mcadam (not so famous, but we played hockey together, he's good people, and he went to high school with lisa suckdog who did rollerderby, but she's more a zine person than a music person, and she bred with a nazi, so no thanks.)
-mandy moore (born in nashua, but i don't think raised)
-scissorfight (there's a reason you don't know who they are).
-okkervil river (duh)

it's a short list, but i think it's actually pretty complete, and okkervil river are the only band on it i'd actually like to see. (no offense, mark, plus i saw the blues explosion i don't know how many times in high school, but i remember the first time they were opening for buffalo tom in providence, and rebecca could not go because it was a week night, she was a boarding student, and besides, i don't think she ever really fell for their shtick.)

from what i understand, the lead singer of okkervil river, will sheff, grew up at the nh prep school where both of his parents taught. this makes sense, because, unlike rebecca, he didn't have to go far for an education that wouldn't insult his intelligence and a community that wouldn't brand him a freak. it's not like anyone who's different is stoned in the square or something-- hostility is actually pretty standard issue for everyone, at least in small towns, and probably not just in the granite state.

in the town i live(d) in, i'm pretty under the radar, and the people who do know me either find my weirdness funny/proof i don't think my shit don't stink, or write me off immediately because i'm not from the town originally. whereas if i was from the town originally (and by originally i mean second generation-- i know people who've lived there 20 years who are still seen as newcomers), there would inevitably be some beef against my family, like i mentioned earlier, and there is no beefless family, trust me. they only way to avoid said beef, aside from not being a native, is, you guessed it, to leave.

and i guess that's why it was so important for both me and rebecca to see okkervil river in concord, and maybe also why it was important for the band to play there-- it's rare for people like us to really get to be ourselves in new hampshire with other people watching and have the reaction be anything but confusion or contempt. when we got to the show, i wasn't actually sure that was going to be the case; not only were we the oldest people there (me, rebecca, and her boyfriend, nick, just for the record), but the crowd was seemingly made up, not of fans, but of the area's bored teens. in other words, these were not kids who would have come to mr. connolly's class in a ramones t-shirt and plaid cons. and if that had been an accurate litmus test in the past, no reason to retire it now.

we arrived late, missing the open acts, but not late enough to miss some of the fundraising, mc'ing, and general disorganization that made the show seem less like a benefit at an arts center and more like a battle of the bands at inter-lakes high. the basketball player who put the thing together seemed goofy and genuine though, and he made up for the "official" mc, whoever the hell he was, who did things like ask if there were any ladies in the house and remind us all of the after party to be held at (the city's one still open) bar across the street. the teen were restless. my party was feared for okkervil's lives.

the band came out, will sheff up front in his grandpa's suit. i don't remember what they opened with, but i'm pretty sure it was "for real" from black sheep boy. starts slow, has loud moments, settles somewhere in between the two, and is, as starters go, not much of a pistol. but then something weird happened-- the kids all stood. some sat down again soon after, but it was a clear a chunk of these kids knew the songs. they knew the songs!

they were stoked to hear "for real" just like i was, because black sheep boy is probably the okkervil record i know best. i read that will sheff writes songs in different personas, but i rarely catch that-- i'm a well known lyrictard in that i can know a song backwards and forwards, sing it with gusto, and still have no idea what it's really talking about. that lucinda williams song about jerking off? news to me until about a year ago, and it's not subtle. "i lie on my back and moan at the ceiling"? c'mon.

one of my favorite songs on black sheep boy is "black," and that's so lyrically obvious that even i understand-- it's one of the most uptempo songs on the record, and it's about someone (a will character?) who's in love with a girl who's survived child abuse, but the uptempo works because it's about how angry this guy gets when he realizes how powerless he is to help the lady he loves. and despite the fact that even i get it (and it has prominent keyboards), it's still a compelling song, that's how good it is. rebecca, incidentally, is most familiar with their record "don't fall in love with everyone you see," which i don't really know so well. nick's favorite record, i'm not sure.

since high school, rebecca's tastes have definitely gone mellower than mine-- she's more gillian welch and such, i''s not that my tastes that have mellowed, but my passion for music in general. by the time i was 16, 17, i wanted to be at the middle east or tt's every weekend seeing shows, or schlepping to lupo's on a weeknight for buffalo tom even, because i loved seeing bands, i loved that no one else in my high school (except for my friends) liked the bands that i did, because that meant they couldn't judge me for once. not that i wasn't judgmental myself-- hello, ramones t-shirt-- but the break, the feeling of belonging, was a big part of what kept me sane. that and my friends. i wouldn't have lasted long in nh at that age, either.

okkervil played most of the more upbeat "black sheep boy" songs first-- the audience, myself included, ate them up, and even basketball player and his brother played back-up tamborine on at least a couple songs (see? the spurs dude's love of the band is the real deal!). then they played the first song on the new record (not then out, but they'd leaked the single), and i love that song-- like i said when i reviewed it on datexedge, the song, "our life is not a movie or maybe," is vaguely anthemic, like something they'd play over olympic highlights or the last scene in a zach braff movie-- but they changed the beat in places, took out a base drum kick, and it was a noticeable enough drag to a song that, on record, out-inspires U2 on their best day.

but that began an overall trend of slow songs, of drag...and the audience seemed to respond more. i craved something fast, joyful, or at least joyful-sounding (songs about abuse, not joyful), but the kids wanted the mellower hits. eventually they played the song "so come back, i'm waiting"-- which is 8 minutes+ on "black sheep boy"-- and did it at near-half speed. the song builds, certainly, from meekly plodding to boldly plodding, but it takes a good while. in my decade plus of attending musical performances, an achingly slow song after a string of slow songs, performed to a mixed audience, would put most people in their seats, if not on their way out the door. but this was not the case.

nobody was sitting down. nobody was talking. at this point, will sheff had taken off most of the suit, down to his t-shirt and slacks, taking his time. the band performed like none of us were there, and in some ways, we weren't-- we were there as individuals, but the rest of the crowd, their t-shirts and family histories and bullshit, had dropped away. it's not just rare for people like me and rebecca and will and maybe mandy moore to really get to be ourselves in new hampshire-- it's hard for anyone. even when being from new hampshire is such a big part of who you are. even if, like me, you're not actually from there at all.

maybe it was the tone of the song that the kids could relate to, the aching, shtick-less sincerity, or the courage it took to perform it at that pace, in this state, in this world. but there was something about it that was more heart-pounding and exciting than any number of rapid bass drum kicks. something that reminded me of those shows in high school, of the excitement of being around strangers, of feeling like a stranger myself.

when the band played an encore, rebecca identified it immediately-- "listening to otis redding at home during christmas time," song # 8 on "don't fall in love...". i had never really noticed it before, maybe because it's so long and fragile, really just voice, strings and guitar with a whisp of snare, but i swear, since that show, i've listened to it over and over again. rebecca pulled my arm when the song ended and said, "it's about you!"

i like to imagine that it is. that it's not will sheff singing, or even one of his characters, but maybe will and rebecca and mandy and gg and everyone else. and then i join in, singing along, knowing not just the words, but exactly what they mean.

"sarah, come back to new hampshire, we'll stay there forever."

gabba gabba hey, one of us.


heathalouise said...

Wow, your analysis of NH is spot-on! I grew up in MA as well, on the MA/NH border, and I've always felt an affinity for the Granite State (hell, I even got married there--in Portsmouth). I still never could front completely that I'm "from" there, even though most of my H.S. shenanigans occurred across the border in the birthplace of Mandy Moore and in other southern towns.

Okkervil River seem to have an interesting fanbase. I'm sure being a home-state band explains the reaction of the audience that night, but when I saw them in Philly a year or so ago, I found the audience a lot less "indie rock" than I thought it would be. It was not unlike the shock and confusion I felt one time in college when I saw Bob Mould and the audience was frattastic.

(Oh, and just so you're not completely confused why some random chick is commenting here, I'm a friend of Molly's and Toby's.)

sb said...

i have been keeping this whole deal low key, but i never should've underestimated toby's e-skills-- dude knows social networking sites based on of your favorite issues of mad magazine or how much you like salt or something, he's connected.

anyway, i'm glad yr down with my nh analysis. i've barely spent time in nashua, but i would like to think you spent many friday nights in high school at lui lui's, sneaking booze from a state packy and eating enough of their rolls to get totally sick.