Vampire Hands tonight, Okkervil River tomorrow…

Category: Blog — @ 6:19 pm September 12, 2008

Tonight at O’Leaver’s it’s the return of Vampire Hands, a dark-groove indie band from Minneapolis that’s not afraid to throw a waltz-time number in with the rest of their low-down, bass-driven rockers. There’s something cool and hip and at the same time, slightly withdrawn, foreboding and spacey about their music. With Bazooka Shootout. $5, 9:30 p.m.

Also tonight, down at Slowdown, it’s a sold-out show by Atmosphere.

Tomorrow night is Okkervil River at Slowdown with Neva Dinova. I tried in vain to line up an interview with Okkervil’s Will Sheff, but it just wasn’t happening. That didn’t stop The Reader from pushing my deadline, however, so here is what I filed with the paper. Who remembers Watch the Stereo?

The Beaten Path
Okkervil River’s Omaha journey.

You can sketch the ebb and flow of Austin band Okkervil River’s career by tracing where they’ve performed in Omaha over the past six years.

The band of musical gypsies fronted by yearning, literate vocalist Will Sheff has made Omaha a regular tour stop along their endless journey across America.

Their first gig was at the now-defunct Junction (located at 15th & Farnam) back on March 5, 2002. It also was the first time Okkervil River played outside of their home of Austin, Texas. Back then, no one around here had heard of the band, even though they were supporting their second album, Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See, the follow-up to their forgotten 2000 debut, Stars Too Small to Use.

Their debut at The Junction was just as forgettable. Only about 10 people were there, stretched out over the bar’s second-hand pleather booths as Okkervil and opening band Watch the Stereo performed beneath the falling ceiling tiles and atop the exposed plywood stage, their songs occasionally punctuated by the crisp crack of a cue ball breaking a fresh rack in the back of the room. The Junction was a lonely little dive, a remnant of Omaha’s musical past that, despite its wore-torn interior, hosted bands as diverse as Kyle Fischer, Bright Eyes, The Prom, Azure Ray, The Rapture, Dave Dondero and The Places.

Sheff called his first two Omaha gigs — both at the lowly Junction — “crappy.” But he’d take a step further south as the next Omaha show would be an impromptu gig at the legendary California Taco. Okkervil River would eventually graduate to Sokol Underground. “I said to myself, ‘We finally made it,'” Sheff said in a 2005 interview, only to find himself and the band playing at the much smaller O’Leaver’s in April 2005. The band would return to Sokol Underground later that November in support of their fourth full-length, Black Sheep Boy, and watched as the crowd ballooned to 200.

Since then, Okkervil River has continued to see its following grow, not only in Omaha but nationwide. Their 2007 album, The Stage Names, peaked at No. 62 on the Billboard album charts and was lauded by everyone from Pitchfork to The New York Times as their best record ever.

Their sound has been compared to a variety of folk-rock acts from Will Oldham to Wilco to Bright Eyes, but the only thing Okkervil River has in common with those bands is their use of eclectic instruments, from accordion to mandolin to Wurlitzer, in addition to the usual guitar-bass-drums rock set up. At the center of it all is Sheff’s unmistakable, thin, weary yodel of a voice, the perfect instrument for his lonely song-stories that capture life lived on the stage and on the road — for better or worse. The popularity of The Stage Names was reflected in last September’s capacity show at The Waiting Room (just two weeks after an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien) that saw people turned away at the door.

Now comes The Stand Ins, released last Tuesday on Jagjaguwar Records, the 11-song opus is being marketed as the sequel to The Stage Names since its tracks were recorded during the same sessions as that album’s. With it comes a move to Slowdown’s big stage, the largest room Okkervil River has played yet and a far cry from The Junction’s ratty confines. Where will they go from there, The Holland Center?

Tickets to Okkervil are $14 and the show starts at 9.

Also on Saturday is the Soaring Wings Food Bank Benefit. The vineyard is located at 17111 So. 138th St. (south of Springfield) and features sets by Sarah Benck and the Robbers, The Whipkey Three, Kyle Harvey, Matt Cox, Brad Hoshaw, Scott Severin and the Milton Burlesque and The Wholes. Admission is $15 and it starts at noon.

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