Let’s say your band has made a good living on the road for the last twenty years. All of a sudden, a bunch of oligarchs get together and create a phony health emergency in order to turn the world into an Orwellian nightmare where music doesn’t even exist. People aren’t even allowed to sing, let alone get together to see a band, since crowds of people who get together usually have fun. And in order to condition the population to a totalitarian slave state, all happiness has to be outlawed. That really happened throughout much of the world in 2020, and it isn’t over yet.
But it will be. The lockdown bears the seeds of its own destruction. In the meantime, out of the thousands of artists who’ve dumped hours upon hours of live recordings onto the web, only a handful can match the epic sweep of road warriors Okkervil River‘s latest release, A Dream in the Dark: Two Decades of Okkervil River Live, streaming at Spotify. On one hand, it’s sobering to realize that they’ve really been around that long. On the other, they are absolutely in their element, careening through the record’s two dozen tracks with their usual reckless abandon. This endless road trip begins in Northhampton, Massachusetts in 2006 and wind up in Cambridge in 2019, with almost a complete turnover in band members. By then, this endearingly shambling Americana quasi-jamband had tightened up their act a little without losing their spontaneity or irrepressible sense of humor.
The first song on this long, strange trip is the outlaw ballad Westfall, kicking off with a brief blast of feedback, steady strums from frontman Will Sheff’s acoustic guitar and a flurry of mandolin. The rest of the band don’t leap in until right before the fateful final verse. They fall apart in a spacerock outro.
The haphazard intro to the punkgrassy No Key, No Plan is priceless. Sheff gets a singalong going, mercilessly needles the crowd: the joke is too good to spoil. Then, as if this was an actual setlist, they follow with a superslow, lingering, steel guitar-infused take of the sad ballad Kansas City
The quiet, wintry, waltzing beginning of Listening to Otis Redding At Home During Christmas doesn’t offer the slightest hint of how orchestral the arrangement’s going to get: “Not even home will be with you forever,”Sheff intones.
This version of the subdued piano-and-strings ballad For Real winds up with a regal peak and a careening, screaming guitar solo. It Ends With a Fall come across as part Jayhawks, part late Beatles, part loping White Denim soul. Then the band pick things up with Sheff’s dramatic, signature off-key flair in a driving take of Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe, decaying to a free jazz freakout and then a typical noisy jam out.
The 90s Wilco influence comes in loud and clear in Unless It’s Kicks, the last song of a 2008 set in Germany. Goodnatured barrelhouse piano makes a surreal contrast with techy string synth in It Was My Season. Down Down the Deep River has post-Velvets clang, new wave swoosh and C&W chickenscratch guitar. By now, if this was an actual show, the band would really be on a roll, so in this case they keep the momentum going with Lost Coastlines and its faux-Motown groove.
A Stone – from a 2015 New York gig – is a momentary detour into wistful stoner country, with spot-on slip-key piano. Thirteen songs into the album, we’re finally rewarded with a minor-key anthem, Another Radio Song, from that same set – and as the band holler, “There’s no escaping it.”
The litany of dead performers in Okkervil River RIP is the most sobering moment here. The brisk, hypnotically pulsing, ten-minute stadium rock version of Judey on a Street is the album’s longest track among many: pretty much everything here is around the seven-minute mark or more.
The ridiculous mashup of blippy new wave and 90s alt-country in So Come Back, I Am Waiting is classic for these guys, in that they manage to make it work somehow. A Seattle crowd is stoked for a slowly crescendoing take of Okkervil River Song, probably the only Americana rock escape anthem that mentions skunk cabbage.
The Surgeon Above the Arbor is an inside joke, but a good one: a fan had requested a song by that title, but trouble was it didn’t exist. So Sheff wrote it: it turned out to be a slowly jangly, pensively vamping, distantly Neil Young-tinged ballad.
The album’s most muted, psychedelic number is Skiptracer. They pick up the pace with Black, a Velvets-meet-Wilco stomp and follow with the hip-hop/soul/Grateful Dead mashup Pink Slips.
Sheff brings out his dad Paul to play mandolin on the faux-western swing tune External Actor, just as he did on the album version.
Mary on a Wave, from a 2019 Washington, DC show, gets a long, lingering spacerock intro. They wind up the album on a similar note with Your Past Life As a Blast, more psychedelic than ever after all these years.