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Shearwater

(7 May 2010: The Parish — Austin, TX)

It is a rare thing to see an extensive level of interaction between opening acts and their tour mates. There may be some instances where the main attraction invites some members of another group on stage during a performance for one or two songs, but it’s another thing entirely when three bands share members throughout an entire evening. It was this interaction that made seeing Shearwater, along with opening groups Hospital Ships and Wye Oak, an engaging, and overall delightful experience.


Hospital Ships started the night off right, with the help of Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak on bass and xylophone, respectively. Shearwater’s drummer/percussionist Thor Harris and keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Schneider rounded out the group. Lead singer Jordan Geiger, who also is a touring member of Shearwater, has a pleasant voice, and he and guitarist Spencer Goertz-Giffen are both solid players. The group’s songs, however, benefitted from the extra personnel onstage. As was the case throughout the night, the members that were shared between groups were doing more than simply clanging the tambourine a few times. Each song sounded well rehearsed and the players didn’t miss a beat, implying that a lot of effort went in to making Hospital Ships sound good. Very rarely have I seen second and third acts help an opening act with their set, and it was very inspiring to see it done so well.


Wye Oak were easily one of the best acts at the Music by the Slice event during this year’s South by Southwest. Although I was unimpressed when they opened for the Walkmen and Blitzen Trapper back in October, their performance that sunny afternoon in March completely changed my perception of them. They were loud, full of energy, and both Wasner and Stack’s talents as musicians were on full display. It proved to me that they were more than worthy of being added to the list of high-powered duos.


They only solidified their potential with another staggering performance at the Parish, and the crowd immediately took notice. It would be an understatement to call Wasner’s guitar playing energetic. She knows how to rock out, while still ensuring that every note sounds good, as evidenced by set highlight “My Neighbor”. The song saw her creating a wall of sound that easily sounded like the work of two or three guitarists. To add to her instrumental chops, she has a singing voice that is both earnest and sweet, and her vocal performance was every bit as good as her guitar work. Equally impressive was Stack, who must have the concentration of a saint to simultaneously play the drums with one hand and keyboard with the other. They were joined onstage by Geiger and Goertz-Giffen several times during their set, and Wasner expressed sadness that it was the last night of the tour with Hospital Ships; a very touching moment. Many people in the audience had never seen Wye Oak, or even heard of them for that matter. However, by the end of their set there was buzz all around about how impressive they were. They have gotten progressively better each time that I have seen them, and if they continue on this upward trajectory, they have the potential to truly break out.


Although they initially started as a side project of Okkervil River, Shearwater have established themselves as another great band from Austin, as they ably proved themselves with 2008’s excellent Rook and the equally impressive follow-up, this year’s The Golden Archipelago. Their homecoming saw them firing on all cylinders to dramatic effect. At the forefront of their sound are the vocal powers of frontman Jonathan Meiburg. He has a bold baritone, and a falsetto that is nothing short of chill inducing. Onstage, he performed with such energy and vocal control that one could easily concentrate on his voice alone instead of the music backing him. Luckily for Shearwater, their music is hard to deny, as they make arrangements that are effortlessly epic or fragile, depending on the song. Many times during their performance, Meiburg and the other members would play different instruments, demonstrating their knowledge of music and attention to craft. Because of this, many of the sweeping and layered sounds that blanket their albums were able to be fully recognized onstage.


The instantly recognizable piano line of “Black Eyes” started off the set, and when the rest of the band joined Meiburg to fill out the sound, it quickly made the song a set standout. “Corridors”, with its fast pace, excellent guitar riff, and Meiburg singing with a particular sense of urgency, got the crowd fired up, while the dual glockenspiel outro to “Hidden Lakes”, played by Harris and bassist Kim Burke, was simply beautiful to hear. However, perhaps the most memorable moment of the night was when everyone who had set a foot onstage came on to perform “Century Eyes”. Everybody looked like they were having fun onstage, enjoying each other’s company, and it turned an already great song into a live spectacle. The added layers of percussion drove the song with more force than on record, and it was a culmination of the energy and enthusiasm shared by these three bands. It was this demonstration of camaraderie between opening and headlining acts that made this performance special.

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