Friday, May 21, 2010

Gig: Shearwater

Shearwater (Wye Oak / Hospital Ships)

Lee's Palace. Thursday, April 1, 2010.

Following some excellent pre-gig time killing1 arrived with perfect timing, just as the night's first band was taking the stage. This was Hospital Ships from Lawrence, Kansas, a half-dozen strong on this night, but apparently in general a highly malleable cast behind frontman Jordan Geiger. The set was a "public practice", in that this version of the band looked to be assembled especially for this tour, drawing on a cast of musicians whom would be back on stage later in the night as part of Shearwater. This would prove to be an agreeable circumstance that gave the songs a filled-out (if somewhat lackadaisical) sound, plenty of mellow tempos and gently downbeat lyrics. A late-night burnt-out vibe, like at the end of a party when someone puts Tonight's The Night on the turntable. To my ears, generally agreeable stuff.

Geiger was also an agreeable banterer, giving his impressions of Toronto and discussing the perils of checking people's reactions on Twitter ("A guy from last night said: 'Last night, in reverse order, Shearwater played a solid set, Wye Oak was a pleasant surprise and Hospital Ships was total shit'. Hope we're not total shit tonight.") Besides selections from their recently-issued album Oh, Ramona, the band also played their very own Fight Song ("We! Are! Hospital Ships!") and closed with Jonathan Meiburg coming on stage to add some backing vocals to a cover of the Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac's "Save Me A Place". A befitting table-setter for the night.

Listen to a track from this set here.

On some quick examinations, I'd liked what I'd heard from Wye Oak, a co-ed duo from Baltimore2, and their presence as openers was definitely a selling point for this show for me. Alongside Jenn Wasner on guit/lead vox, drummer Andy Stack doubled up on keyboards, not only creating interstitial segues while Wasner tuned between songs, but also doing a credible job of playing keyb with his left hand while drumming. With albums released in '08 and '09 under their belt, the pair were already exhibiting new material, including "My Neighbor" from a forthcoming EP.

An interesting balancing act musically — they weren't particularly hook-y, in the sense there wasn't anything here that I'd walk away humming. But they do have a nice line in slightly hazy rock with arrangements hinting at folk and lyrics dabbling in various shades of bleakness. Though chipper on stage, the musical mood was downcast throughout. But consistently enjoyable, peaking midway through with "That I Do" and "I Hope You Die". Once again the set ended with Jonathan Meiburg joining the band for a cover — in this case The Kinks' "Strangers". A worthy forty minutes. It didn't knock my socks off, but more than a "pleasant surprise".

Listen to a track from this set here.

Through Wye Oak's set the venue had been eerily empty, but things picked up quickly and there was a respectable — though by no means packed-in — crowd by the time headliners Shearwater took the stage. Thankfully, for a late-arriving, skip-the-opener crowd, the audience about as quiet as could be hoped for at Lee's, creating an an excellent environment to listen to the Austin combo play. With a reshuffling of the faces seen during Hospital Ships' set, they led off with "Black Eyes", the most immediate and arresting track from newly-released album The Golden Archipelago. Sticking with the new material, the band essayed another three from the new album ("Castaways" was especially affecting) before looking back to 2006's Palo Santo with "White Waves". Then another run of new material, including "Hidden Lakes", which sort of just slogged along as a semi-formless keyb-led ditty until given some animation with Kimberly Burke and Thor Harris' dual-action glockenspiel.3

In a burst of persona-fitting banter, Meiburg — a noted ornithologist — told a tale of stepping outside the club before the show and seeing a red-tailed hawk capture a pigeon for his dinner. Catching the excitement of the story, the band eased in behind him with an impromptu accompaniment. "This is in your city," he concluded, as if handing the audience a gift of something that perhaps no-one else in the room might have had the presence to observe. Paying tribute, Meiburg then dedicated "Rooks" (the title track of the band's '08 album, and possibly his finest composition) to the hawk. That led into a driving version of "Century Eyes" with catchy trumpet stabs.

"How dark can we get it in here?" Meiburg asked, shifting gears into the meditative "I Was A Cloud" which was filled with glorious sonic details, all nicely audible in the hushed — and now gloomy — room. The hour-long set was followed by a two-song encore, Meiburg playing "Nobody" solo before the band re-emerged to finish things with "The Snow Leopard".

With Meiburg's keening, earnest vocals and anthemic mojo, it's tempting to think of his songs as something like a more ambitious indie-rock "Kyrie" for the new generation. Which I put out there semi-facetiously — there's something more than that going on in the band's arrangements and songs than cheap theatrics. But his songwriting is certainly theatrical, and in a live setting it all worked rather well. A superior night, overall.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Dropped in to check out the Gravity Wave Spin Cycle event, an April Fools' Day DIY ramble with stripped-down performances in laundromats and other such places. I caught up with the group as folks were settling in on the front steps of Central Tech for performances by Brent Randall and Paul Linklater of The Pinecones followed by Sarah Greene. It was a rather charming time — nice tunes, and amusing to watch the reactions of people going by as they encountered the show. And to boot, it was just the shortest of walks up to Lee's from there as it ended.

2 I must confess that for a couple years I always got Wye Oak mixed up with another duo from Baltimore, until the latter distinguished themselves recently by getting rather big.

3 Of the talented musicians at hand, Thor Harris deserves a special shout-out. Looking like he'd wandered in from a different band, he switched to several instruments when not on drums, adding some energy to the proceedings. Plus his drum kit included an unusual extra cymbal, about five feet high and facing the audience with a masking tape star, for the moments when the beats needed to "go to eleven", as it were.

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