Live Reviews (Contrasts and Comparisons)
Sea Wolf and Okkervil River
September 19, 2008 at the Crystal Ballroom and
Parachutes and Sigur Ros
October 6, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

One can always tell how secure a band feels about themselves and their music by the way they treat their opening acts. Oh, there are always those situations where this part of the sound board or those stage lights are off limits to the openers. That is just part of the business. But, on occasion, the headliner will purposely sabotage the work of the openers, hardly allowing them to perform, let alone to sound decent.

Such was the case for poor Sea Wolf in opening for the overrated Okkervil River at the Crystal. Granted, the Crystal is no paradise when it comes to sound. The room was designed for the pre-microphone, big band days- the acoustics reverberant and the high ceilings certain doom for a sound engineer.

Still, that is what sound checks are for. And one would think (or hope anyway) that if a competent sound engineer could get a band sounding decent in an empty room during the sound check, then the sound should be acceptable, come showtime when the room is full of sound absorbing bodies.

Now, in the case of this particular gig, there are no variables. The same sound engineer manned the board for both bands. Sea Wolf, could hardly play. The kick drum drowned out the muddy vocals. The guitars could not be heard either. This was a pity, because I and several others were actually there to see and hear Sea Wolf. Saw them we did, but hear them we didn‘t, as the band struggled to even complete their set, the sound was so terrible. On several occasions they elected to start their songs over, in vain hope that somehow the sound might improve (obviously their stage monitors sounded no better than the mains). Sea Wolf left the stage frustrated and obviously defeated.

A brief twenty minute interval later, Okerrvil River took the stage- and suddenly all the sound problems were overcome. They sounded pristine and clean and resonant. Hmmm… They were also annoying. Lead vocalist Will Sheff is an acquired taste. He is obviously high on himself- his ego dripping all over the stage. The band are competent, but nothing special. And I had a bad taste in my mouth. It’s not right to do to a band what Okkervil River did to Sea Wolf. Whether or not Sea Wolf is the better band, they didn’t deserve to be treated like lawn jockeys and the Okkervil River sound man should be ashamed of himself- as should the band he so obviously represented. That was sad.

Conversely, the Icelandic band Parachutes were given every opportunity to prove themselves opening for Sigur Ros in a packed house at the Schnitz. They were similar enough and good enough that some critics thought they WERE Sigur Ros. Check out this boneheaded review:

To be fair, Parachutes lead singer vocalizes in somewhat the same register as Sigur Ros’ Jón Þór “Jonsi” Birgisson, but still: the guy “left at intermission.” What intermission? What band has an intermission? Obviously Parachutes share some sonic similarities, with a mix of bell-like keys and strings (as the band Amiina has provided in the past for Sigur Ros).

And, as opposed to the lousy sound at the Crystal, the sound at the Schnitz was absolutely majestic. The symphonic qualities of both bands were well served by the acoustics at the hall. This time around, Sigur Ros did not utilize any backing musicians, but played as a versatile four-piece, with Birgisson typically sawing away on his guitar with a violin bow, creating unique palisades of otherworldly sound. Bassist Georg Holm also contributed a stalwart performance, as did Kjartan Sveinsson on keys and occasional backing guitar, while Orri Páll Dýrason proved resourceful in sensitive support on drums.

Drawing primarily from three of their most recent albums: Ágætis Byrjun (2001), Takk… (2005) and Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (which roughly translates to:”With the buzz in our ears, we play endlessly), the band played for an hour and forty five minutes, an hypnotic set which enthralled a captivated crowd.

Of special note were the hypnotic opening number “Svefn-g-Englar” where in Jonsi, with his high castratti/choirboy voice, sustained a note for much longer than any human should. Also spectacular was “Gobbledigook” a sprightly 6/8 piece (from Med Sud…) where Jonsi convinced the audience to clap along, while members of Parachutes took the stage to provide resounding folk drum rhythms as tumultuous butterflies of confetti were blown out into the crowd (they did not all land for many minutes)- which ended the set.

The conclusion of the encore was the symphonic “Popplagi’,” transcendent song number 8 from the 2002 album called ( ) (not a typo), which evoked powerful emotion from the musicians and the audience as well.

The Parachutes/Sigur Ros concert was testament to two bands intent on providing the audience with a full night’s worth of sound. No one attending that show was disappointed with any aspect of those performances (except, perhaps, critic David Schmader). The show was designed to build to a gradual crescendo and it did so: sonically, emotionally and literally.

Would that Okkervil River had confidence (and balls) enough to provide Sea Wolf with the same superior attention to sonic detail that Parachutes received from Sigur Ros. Perhaps the former concert wouldn’t have seemed like an irritating waste of time and money. The latter was a piece of magic that will not soon be forgotten.

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