Thursday, 1 April 2010

LIVE REVIEW: Shearwater @ Bowery Ballroom, NYC

On a cold and rainy afternoon that more befits the recently usurped Winter than the currently unsprung Spring, the evening promise of Shearwater's first NYC gig in some time is a welcome musical hot toddy.

Before the sublime melodies of the Okkervil River siblings, however, the surprisingly intense shoegaze of Baltimore duo Wye Oak succeeds in dropping many a jaw across the Bowery. 

Though the sound is slow, winding, and undeniably gloomy in spots, the emotional intensity connects on every song with impressive results. Nowhere is this more apparent than newer song 'I Hope You Die', which raises an unsuspecting chuckle as announced but by the close has enraptured most of the audience with what sounds to be a heart-wrenching exploration of a suffering loved one. Fronted by the low slung vocal tones of Jenn Wasner and powered by Andy Stack's striking percussion, it only takes a few songs for Wye Oak to suck one into their hazy world. Much more to come, I'm sure.
One wouldn't necessarily expect a great many surprises from the headliners tonight. A band of mostly subtle charms, from the almost angelic croon of Jonathan Meiburg to the calm pleasures of last album Rook, very little about their recorded output suggests an overwhelming live show to bewitch the senses with variety. That, however, is exactly what we get.

Show snaps extracted from Last.FM via widgettery

The first notable variation comes from the instrumentation and, specifically, the unwillingness of any one member to stay behind any one instrument for more than a couple of songs. Meiburg begins on keys for opener - and great new track - Black Eyes, before strapping on a guitar for the following song. Highly conspicuous, 80's hair metal-looking drummer Thor Harris shows no qualms in moving to a bassoon or undertaking a xylophone duel further into the set. Even support acts are roped in, with Wye Oak's drummer adding a beat when needed and the Hospital Ships (who we missed) gent popping up for good measure. Most importantly, it never feels forced for the sake of spectacle and adds immensely to the visual aspect of the live show, which so many indie-rock bands can tend to overlook. Very well done, chaps and chappess.

In terms of song choices, there are very few missteps here either. Now and again Shearwater's music can sound a little samey, with the singing not breaking its standard mould and the pace remaining a touch slow. This is kept to a bare minimum on stage, as Meiburg's voice covers a solid range evidenced best on dynamic run throughs of Castaways and, my personal highlight, Century Eyes. The latter is a short, sharp blast of strident drums and belligerent guitars, picking up the momentum like a shot of adrenaline to the collective arm of the audience. A towering White Waves is another pick for similar reasons earlier in the night.

MP3: Shearwater - Seventy Four, Seventy Five
MP3: Shearwater - Rooks
MP3: Shearwater - Castaways

(All hosted on the Shearwater site Music page)

One could be forgiven for thinking that the band simply conquer their live performances in this way every time they take the stage, a myth that the lead singer dispels midway through the set. Drawing attention to a small lump of tape on his amp, he recalls a technically flawed show the last time Shearwater played this same venue. After battling through that night, he apparently vowed vengeance on the room and placed said tape on amp as the visual cue to return to seek it. Proudly removing and casting it into the audience...does anyone really want manky tape as a souvenir, as an aside...?'s safe to assume that this particular demon has been exorcised. 

With a late set highlight of the rousing Seventy Four, Seventy Five and  the closing triumph that is Hail, Mary, the band is visibly delighted at a night well played. Equally, the crowd send them off warmly, clearly impressed with a band of high talent and - perhaps - unexpected flexibility to their sound. With a trio of strong albums under their belt and such an engaging live show, the signs for their future are very, very positive. 
With any luck we'll get to experience this again soon. Hopefully, even with nothing to avenge, Shearwater will still play as though they have everything to prove to an audience that is already eating out of their hands.

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