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down by okkervil river, slow, silent, thick, and black

We left late so we missed The Middle East, the support act. That was okay though, as we were there for Okkervil River, first and foremost. They did not disappoint.

I'm a hugely indecisive person. There is no denying that. That’s why it was a big deal for me to finally settle on a favourite band. Favourite anythings stump me, but there is something about Okkervil River that is withstanding, that sticks around. Often, things I like come and go, but for the past couple years, the River has held a place is in my heart and my CD player. I think it’s because Will Sheff's (guitar, vocals) songs don't get old. I get something from it each time I listen to a song, an album. I first heard "Black," "Westfall," and "For Real" in 2004, and despite initially being creeped out (because I was young and I didn't get the concept of characters in songs, I seriously thought the singer was the narrator), it intrigued me.

We stepped into The Zoo after getting stamped and I got a little star struck when I saw Travis Nelsen (drums) sound checking his drum kit. We ran into a few people we knew, and I was jumping up and down with barely contained excitement.

Out come five sharply dressed men, and one sharply dressed woman. Will steps on stage in a suit, and thanks the crowd for coming out and saying he's really glad to have sold out in Brisbane, which was met with cheers. They started off with "Plus Ones" from The Stage Names, a song that references songs with numbers in their titles, but adding 1 to them. At this point, we were a bit further back, behind a pretty large crowd. Kristine decided we should get closer, so closer we got.

We ended up right next to the fuckin' stage. Like literally. The Zoo has an amazing set up where you can literally touch your idols. I was about a metre and a half away from Will, and even less from Justin Sherburn (keyboard, guitar).

During "The Latest Toughs," Will goes off and rambles into the microphone where in the recording, he sings "I don't know what notes you want to hear played, I can't think what lines you'd like me to sing or say, and I'm not sure what subjects you want mentioned. So pause and add your own intentions." At that point, I was blown away. The whole band was clearly really into it. They weren't half-assed about it. Will was wound up in the song, everyone was so into it. And so was I. That's the point, isn't it?

After that rocker, Will tells the crowd that this is a slower song, and the lights dim so that the focus is on him and his guitar, as he starts singing "A Girl in Port." Katherine and Kristine look as into it as I do, and I'm happy. This song is so good, it breaks my heart. It's a long song, but no one seems to care. They pulled it off. They pulled it off well! Then, to keep us on our toes, they rock out again with current single, "Pop Lie."

Each song is met by raucous applause, and it's clear that the band is pretty chuffed about it. Will says he loves this audience. And why wouldn't he? We know the words. We sing along. We're hanging on their every note, every strum, and every beat.

We are rewarded, of course. He mentions that this song is "from two or three albums back, depending on how you count them", before the band starts the intro to "Black." I must admit, I squealed a little. I love this song to bits. It gets me pumped up. Its subject matter is a bit frank, but my god, it's amazing. The music is bouncy, jumpy; the lyrics are pleading, unhinged ("and I can still see the cigarette's heat. / I can't believe all that you're telling me / what is cutting like the smoke through your teeth as you are telling me 'forget it.'"). It is fuckin' incredible live.

At this point, my mind is blown. Anything from this point onwards just serves to cement their position as my favourite band ever. The previous night, I'd had a dream where it was a disaster. The night was non-event, and I couldn't remember a thing, or even what songs they played. It was terrible. I woke up feeling let down. Then I realised it was a dream, but I was worried that it would be déjà vu. It wasn't.

Kristine and I have an obsession with "A Stone," about someone who loves a girl, but the girl loves someone who cannot love her back (using a stone as a metaphor for the cold, possibly dead, lover). This is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. It's made me cry (wuss moment). We listen to it often, and we let it just break our hearts because Will’s songs draw you in, and don’t let go until you're too invested to pull away. Like earlier, the lights dim to just Will, as he leads in with hot breath, rough skin / warm laughs, and smiling / the loveliest words, whispered and meant / you like all these things. We prepared for the heartbreak. It was beautiful. The drums and trumpet came in at just the right time, for the understated flourish towards the end.

A couple notes into "Black Sheep Boy," Will stops, laughs and says that he "needs to remember how to play this song" and that he "didn't write this song so it's harder for [him] to remember" but that we look like "a forgiving audience". He remembers soon enough, and plays Tim Hardin's song with ease given he wrote a concept album around the Black Sheep Boy character, which was their breakaway success album, critically acclaimed and well received. From here, they create a wall of fuzz from Lauren Gurgiolo's (lead guitar) guitar, before bringing this to an almost standstill, leaving just an acoustic guitar strumming the beginning to "For Real." I lost it there.

For the chorus, Will asks the audience to sing along with him, and my god, did they sing! This was one of the most amazing moments of the night for me: standing at the front singing along, as Okkervil River rock out to "For Real" in front of me, while everyone behind me sings/shouts the song back to them. It felt like an awesome almost community, joined by this song. Katherine later informed me that she also sang along, despite having only heard it while it was playing.

Patrick and Will then instruct the crowd to throw their hands in the air and clap very fast, in order to replicate the opening of "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe." It really works too. This is another one of my favourite moments; it looked especially fantastic with the yellow lighting they used for this song.

They surely don't disappoint, this band. At this point in the night, it was almost 11pm; they'd been playing for just over an hour. I was losing hope that they would play my favourite song of all time, "Unless It's Kicks." They played such an energetic show thus far, that I didn't really mind, even though the previous week, I thought I'd be so heartbroken if they didn't play it. Will tells the audience that this is their last song, but as I said, they don't disappoint.

The riff tears into the room. It's a pretty recognisable riff. I was beyond in love with this band. Will has said in an interview somewhere that he wrote this song as a confidence boost for the band, to show them that making music could still be fun. Travis is clearly having a blast on the drums, while Scott Brackett (keyboard, trumpet) rocks out the maracas (doesn't sound like much, but it really adds to the song). They nailed it. They nailed this confidence, this fun side. During the instrumental part, Will nonsensically yells into the microphone, but it seems fun rather than crazy. He finishes his lyrics with a yelp and la la las, before discarding the microphone to the floor, and the band rocks it with the best of them.

The lights dim, and they walk off stage, leaving some feedback going. The crowd does not accept this! The clapping goes on and on. Okkervil River return for their encore. Will's taken off his suit, and is looking more casual in a t-shirt. Travis has loosened his tie. Justin is smoking a cigarette on stage, which is slightly illegal but I'm willing to overlook it. "Blue Tulip" off The Stand Ins starts a somber mood, before building to a thrilling climax as Will sings: "with every single cell of me, I'm going to make you mean the words you sigh… Goodbye." Fitting.

As if I couldn't have already died from contentment, Lauren straps on a mandolin for "Westfall" from Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See, an old favourite, and clearly a crowd pleaser. The entire band sings into their microphones for the chorus on this one, and the crowd does the same as with "For Real," as they sing the lines "evil don't look like anything" back to him. Astounding. I was rooted to my spot.

They went off stage for real this time. We hung around though, a little creepily. Patrick came out, and we asked if we could have some hugs and photos. He said yes, and we had a bit of a chat. Then we hung around outside the backstage area, seeing if anyone would come out or anything. Patrick heads back in and opens the curtain for us. We met Will and took some photos. We had a chat about the show, and he recommended some restaurants for me when I go to in Texas (as that's where the band is from). Then we met Justin (who told Kristine she smelt nice), and Scott (who was very smiley), and took photos with them. As we were leaving, Travis was chatting to some people, so we asked if we could grab a photo with him as well. They were all nice guys; really down to earth.

So okay, they didn't play "Savannah Smiles," "Starry Stairs," "Calling and Not Calling My Ex," "It Ends With A Fall" or a lot of others that I would have liked to have seen, but they more than made up for it with the other songs, their energetic performance, the fact that they were so into giving the audience a good live show, the opportunity we had to go meet them backstage, and how approachable they were. It blew my mind, and they more than made up for it.

~ Mary Duong