Okkervil River @ Islington Assembly Hall, London 27.11.13

In a parallel universe Okkervil River were arena-conquering heartland rockers. Sharing amphitheaters and stages with the Springsteens, Mellencamps and Pettys of 80’s America, and frontman Will Sheff’s denim clad audience hanging on his every word and every swing of his acoustic guitar as he hangs on to the mic bellowing his gritty tales of small town life and disillusionment .

Nov 27th, 2013 at Islington Assembly Hall, London / By Lewie Peckham
Okkervil River @ Islington Assembly Hall, London 27.11.13 Back in the real world and Okkervil River are playing in the more graceful surroundings of the Islington Assembly Hall still in front of a tightly packed, devoted audience. A sketched blueprint of Will Sheff’s hometown forms the band’s backdrop tonight, the tiny roads and intimate streets that form the emotional core of the band’s latest album, the nostalgic The Silver Gymnasium, looks over the band as they play a set of vibrant, impassioned rock and roll.

With the theme of childhood and growing up that runs throughout The Silver Gymnasium, the band open with the Elvis Costello heartbreak pop of ‘It was My Season’ its melody and emotional resonance a distant cousin to Christopher Owens ex-indie romeos Girls heartbreaker ‘Laura’ while layered with Justin Sherburn’s piano adding the wistful melancholy to Sheff’s heartfelt, defiant vocals. Playing for nearly two hours Okkervil River touch base with the majority of their recorded output, from the country heart break of ‘Kansas City’ (from 2002’s acclaimed Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See) to rowdy, gritty rockers like ‘The Rider’ which is hammered home by sometime Afghan Whig-er Cully Symington’s fervent drumming while guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo is the band’s secret weapon. Stood at the far side of the stage, head down she wrings melody and understated notes from her guitar throughout tonight's set. At times, you almost forget she is there until another gorgeous burst of noise directs your eyes back to her.

During a solo spot Will Sheff even manages to cram in Silver Gymnasium b-side ‘From a Cutlass Cruiser’ its lyrics telling the tale of a childhood near death experience, mixed with nostalgic b-movie sci-fi references and morbid American Gothic. It's a beautiful, yet eerie breather in the midst of an otherwise energetic set and draws the crowd to a hushed attentive silence. Finishing with the glorious ‘Unless it Kicks’, its climatic build to that anthemic chorus, the one that brings us back to that parallel universe where the crowd, like the one exiting the Islington Assembly Hall into the cold November night, witnessed Okkervil River play a glorious set of staggering passion and ebullient songs.