Generally speaking, concerts fall into venue categories, from flammable DIY basement to tables & chairs coffeehouse to standing room rock club to classy seated theatre to massive stadium, and while acts may move up and down on the size chart, they rarely move along the other axis – rock bands stay off Broadway and musicals stay outta Bowery & Williamsburg. A refreshing break from this trend is Lincoln Center American Songbook, where the storied musical institution brings more contemporary artists to its beautiful Appel Room (QRO venue review) in the Time Warner Building, overlooking Columbus Circle. For the 2017 season an early special were indie-rockers Okkervil River, who came on Friday night, February 3rd.
Before even talking about the show, one must make mention of Appel Room. Located on the fifth & sixth floors of the Time Warner Building, the terraced concert hall provides one of the best views in NYC music, staring down and out upon Midtown, from Columbus Circle east along 59th Street, with the towers of Manhattan to the right, darkness of Central Park to the left. Two planes of glass, one flat and one slanted downward, create not only two reflections (such as the traffic on 59th seemingly coming out of the sky), but even making them meet: the reverse image of the ‘American Songbook’ sign fell on the slanted glass so that it met the flat reflection of Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, as if he was singing directly to the sign.
After Okkervil River opened with “Call Yourself Renee” from last year’s Away (QRO review) and “Red” from 2002 debut Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, Okkervil River did a sort of ‘music industry back-to-back’, 2007’s The Stage Names’ (QRO review) “Plus Ones” and Away’s “Industry”. They worked well together, both containing wistfulness for that long ago time when music really touched you, but also energy of that happening again. Often songwriters can be tiresome when they start singing about their own industry, wrapped in a navel-gazing bubble after years on the road (especially with how the industry is these days), but not Will Sheff (though he did joke that the knocks on his door before the show, telling fifteen, then ten, then five minutes before the show, made his “dream of feeling like I was a guest on The Muppet Show…”).
Thankfully Sheff finds his writing subjects far and wide. This includes his grandfather Thomas Holmes Bud Moore, whom Sheff helped write his memoirs while in hospice, particularly detailing his time as a naval aviator on the USS Indiana during WWII. This became Away’s “Comes Indiana Through the Snow”, which exquisitely mixed Moore’s memories of the Indiana with Sheff’s own experience at his grandfather’s hospice, for the kind of touching, intimate song that a setting like Lincoln Center Appel Room was perfect for – it would be hard for Sheff to describe it beforehand, and then deliver the quiet piece, in your usual rock club. The quiet intimacy continued with Away opener “Okkervil River R.I.P.”, which even also featured an appearance by Moore.
Not that Okkervil River eschewed the more rockin’ ‘hits’. Following “R.I.P.” came “Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe” from Stage Names, maybe the group’s biggest hit, along with older rocker “Down Down the Deep River” (2013’s The Silver Gymnasium – QRO review), which featured a charming mid-song ramble from Sheff about how the song was about being a kid in the eighties, and a more rocking take on the music biz, Stage’s “Unless It Kicks”. And they went into their encore with the song that gave 2005 breakthrough record Black Sheep Boy its name, “So Come Back, I Am Waiting”.
At classy shows like this, one actually never knows if there is going to be an encore, but after clapping there was, with perhaps the most intimate piece of the night, “Maine Island Lovers” from 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams, before “For Real” from Black Sheep Boy. Sheff started the encore by telling of how, when he was a “precocious” kid (“which might just mean ‘pretentious’…”), he would spend every Sunday reading the New York Times Arts Section, a world away from his 400-person town in New Hampshire (he does now live in Brooklyn, of course), where so many of the events happened at Lincoln Center, and young Sheff wondered if that world would ever have him. There was a second, standing request for another encore that went on for quite a while – nobody knew if it would be possible, and it took a long time for Appel Room to put on the house lights & music to let people know the night was done.
The hushed, seated nature of Appel Room, with request to put away your phones before the show and notice of “No Late Seating” on your ticket, pushed away the distractions that one normally has at rock concert: no checking your phone to see if The Donald has sent us to war with Australia yet, no taking Instagram pictures because otherwise you weren’t there, no going back and forth to the bar to get yet another drink, and no trying to talk to your friend loud enough so that she can hear, but not so loud as to tick off everyone else (which gets progressively louder & louder, the more trips to the bar…). Instead, one really has to focus on the music, and let all else fall away. Except for the view, of course…