St. Louis is often indie music flyover country. For fans of bands who weren’t huge in the arena rock 1970s or hair metal 1980s, checking the city’s calendar of upcoming shows on Pollstar is often a depressing exercise in futility, with plenty of acts bypassing the STL in favor of Chicago, Kansas City or Indianapolis. Even the college town of Columbia, MO manages a few nice lifts every year. So a pairing of Wye Oak and Okkervil River at the Pageant came as something of a surprise, though plenty of people unfortunately stayed away; the venue’s balcony section was closed, while the floor level didn’t exactly find concertgoers in tight quarters.
In fact, the Pageant was about as full as it would get by the time the Baltimore-bred duo of Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner took the stage at 8 pm sharp. If anyone was expecting a mannered, faithful facsimile of their albums, such thoughts were likely banished as soon as the duo started their first song. Drawing from this year’s well-received Civilian as well as The Knot, the duo generated an ungodly amount of volume in their 40-minute set. With Wasner on guitar and a spider-like Stack playing drums with his right hand and keyboards with his left – and somehow not messing up even once – the band was able to show the technical ability that countless reviews have centered on while also pushing their songs in new, and especially noisy, directions.
Wasner has a booming, commanding voice, though on Civilian this isn’t apparent because of the way her vocals are frustratingly buried a bit. Here they were allowed their own space and the songs sounded better because of it. Her vocals were both assured and confident on “Holy Holy” and the slower-paced “We Were Wealth,” while Stack hit his drum kit like he was settling a score. The band’s stage presence was mostly unassuming: Wasner didn’t deviate from her place on the stage too often, and aside from a few words of thanks, the most she offered in terms of stage banter was how her Pepsi cup contained red wine and not that apparently vile soft drink. Still, it was an absolutely engrossing set that was able to show how succinctly arranged songs can be translated into concert without the need for flashy theatrics. More of this stuff and they’ll obliterate that ridiculous folk-rock tag they’ve been saddled with; an overheard comment that compared the band’s live sound to that of Dinosaur Jr.’s wasn’t as off-target as one would think.
Okkervil River last played St. Louis in 2008 as the opening act for a nearly-comatose New Pornographers in a show that’s since reached mythic status in this city. Three years after it happened, you’ll find locals who continue to talk about it like it was their own personal Road to Damascus. Time makes concert memories grow fonder, certainly, but the stars did seem to align in just the right way for Will Sheff and the band on that night. Tonight’s performance was a little rougher, even if Sheff had much of the crowd in his pocket before he even sang a note: prior to the first song, the vocalist requested that people move into the pit, which they immediately did, marching in like dutiful little soldiers.
What followed was a 90-minute set that featured plenty of peaks but also, alas, a few valleys. Old standbys like “For Real,” “The Latest Toughs” and “John Allyn Smith Sails” were duly performed with Sheff’s usual showmanship, the spit literally flying out of the singer’s mouth as the words poured out, while “No Key, No Plan” was beautifully presented as a slow acoustic ballad. But some of the material from I Am Very Far dragged a bit, particularly “Hanging from a Hit” and “The Rise,” while “Westfall” started with a stagger before stopping, a problem that Sheff attributed to “poor intonation” before telling everyone that “this is why it was only a $16 ticket.” It wasn’t exactly a disappointing performance, but it wasn’t the type of show you’ll tell your children about as they worry that dad’s gone senile.
But a bill that features one band that continues to dramatically improve with every new release and another that belongs on the shortlist for best current live act deserves a bigger crowd. The blocked-off balcony couldn’t have gone unnoticed by many, not by those in attendance and definitely not by the performers. It’s stuff like this that earns a city a lousy reputation among acts who don’t play the casino or outdoor amphitheatre circuits, and if it’s a while before either band returns to the cozy Pageant or anywhere else in the city, well, it won’t come as much of a surprise.
(Photos: Anja Weber)