Will Sheff goes solo for latest tour

by Amy Kingsley

“Well I never said that I was a stone,” crooned Will Sheff.

That is a line from one of the songs on the latest release by Sheff’s band, Okkervil River, a lyric sung to a sparse group gathered at the Green Bean on Friday evening. The song, “A Stone,” is a ballad wherein Sheff’s passionate narrator loses the girl to someone altogether cooler, more aloof and, well, stone like.

The line, in addition to punctuating one of the best tracks on Black Sheep Boy, also distills what it is that sets Will Sheff’s songwriting apart from so many of his indie rock peers. Emotion, not the noncommittal, abbreviated “emo” version of it, suffuses his work in Okkervil River. It’s in his cracking voice, pleading lyrics and the instrumental arrangements that swell and stab in time with Sheff’s rages. Sure enough, Sheff is no stone.

So much passion could be a bad thing – it seems to be the downfall of most of his protagonists. But even though Sheff’s songs veer at times toward recklessness and desperation, they are never clumsy. The lyrics are smart enough to avoid the treacle or callow earnestness of so many of his heart-on-sleeve contemporaries.

Sheff’s appearance at the Green Bean was part of a solo tour undertaken to get back in touch with his performing roots.

“When you’re in a band there is a pleasure in doing something small,” Sheff said.

Okkervil River, which has played in Asheville and Chapel Hill, doesn’t really do small. Most of the arrangements on the latest album are lush and expansive.

The performance is also a test of how well his songs translate to a smaller format. The singer, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, took to the stage armed with only his acoustic guitar and an electric piano. The guy with the mousy brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses certainly didn’t look the part of a madman, even though that is often how he sounds.

With the air conditioner at the Green Bean out of commission, most of the crowd cooled themselves with beers. Some waited outside.

Sheff played a handful of songs from Black Sheep Boy, some from previous Okkervil River records and one from his early band Shearwater. Some of the softer songs suffered from the absence of a full band. Sheff’s voice – which warbles and breaks like dishes tossed during a domestic dispute – smothered the gentle guitar strumming. During a couple of tunes Sheff’s always idiosyncratic vocals derailed into a key that was altogether wrong.

The singer partially deconstructed “A Stone” for his audience, a small crew of loyalists willing to brave the heat. His fans, many of them women, swayed a bit to the lovely tune. The solo approach worked best on the more upbeat numbers. On those, he played his guitar with more abandon and volume, and the rhythmic clip of his lyrics reined in any bad behavior by his vocal chords.

One, I think it might be titled “The President’s Dead,” earned a smattering of enthusiastic applause for its vision of future events. But even though the story of the song was constructed around hypothetical future events, the lyrics themselves avoided politics. Instead Sheff described the relationships of those experiencing the event. It’s what he does best. In a world where everyone is dramatic, Sheff’s characters tend toward the complicated and often demanding.

Near the end of the set, Sheff played “The Okkervil River Song” of a previous album titled Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See. As it turns out, the river is an actual one that runs through St. Petersburg in Russia. The song itself is an Americana-style ode to the forgotten places people go to briefly escape their lives, the kinds of places where people so often fall into a backdoor trap that locks them into place. Like Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.”

Sheff switched to piano for the final song, a minor college radio hit titled, “For Real.” He transformed the recorded version – with its curdling screams and instrumental bursts – into a slow piano ballad. The result was beautiful.

By the end of the set, the heat had half soaked Sheff’s shirt with sweat. The singer packed up his guitar, thanked the crowd and very undramatically bid Greensboro adieu.

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