Live Review: Shearwater and Wye Oak at hi-dive

Shearwater, Wye Oak Sunday, August 31, 2008 hi-dive Better Than: Most shows I’ve seen this year.

When I walked into hi-dive, Wye Oak was already playing (I think it was “Warning” or “Orchard Fair”). From the thickly layered guitar sound, though, I thought for a moment that it could’ve just as well been Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine on stage—except not nearly as loud. For two people, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack had a huge sound. Although Wasner’s girlish but resonantly powerful voice would have been impressive enough on its own, her guitar work was phenomenal, and for his part, Stack played great bass lines while also playing powerful, tribal drums. I don’t know if Wasner uses loops to accomplish her gigantic, sweeping riffs, but I did see her play some of the most interesting indie rock guitar lines of the last decade. Visions of having seen Helium and Yo La Tengo washed through my head as the band’s all-too-short set progressed.

Overall, Wye Oak had quiet songs, too, but those were evocatively beautiful numbers with subtly inventive soundscaping, the likes of which two-piece bands almost never seem to pull off because they’re trying to strip things down. Wye Oak, however, did the opposite. In having only two members of the band, they apparently taught themselves to keep things simple but not to skimp on power, which has allowed them to create sounds as huge as their imaginations and talent. Sure, I was also reminded of other Baltimore bands like Beach House, Celebration and Teeth Mountain, but only because each of those acts is similarly great and artistically ambitious. The crowd seemed to love Wye Oak, including people who had never heard -- or heard of -- the band prior to this show. Even Eric Fuller, the door guy who also plays in To Be Eaten, remarked to me later that Wye Oak was especially good. My only regret is not getting to tell Jenn Wasner how she’s my new guitar hero.

Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg, on the other hand, reminded me of a cross between Jim Thirlwell and Thurston Moore. He probably gets that a lot. Shearwater had all the elements of a cool Americana band with acoustic guitar, banjo, loungey keyboards, an upright bass and bells. At the same time, though something about the band is decidedly non-rustic. Meiburg’s vocals are forceful and emotionally naked even in quiet numbers. As comfortable as the outfit seemed playing whisperingly quiet songs such as “Lost Boys,” it seemed equally at ease on fiery rock songs like “Century Eyes.”

Even more striking was how confidently each member of Shearwater performed and how Meiburg could sing with a strident conviction yet joke cleverly with the audience between songs. “Leviathan Bound” began with a heartbreaking build from impressionistic sounds and expertly falsetto vocals into one of the most powerful musical performances I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the kind of song that needs to beat you over the head with volume or heavy lyrics, but it did flood my heart and mind with the emotional power of its content and the evocative vitality of its instrumentation. The assembled crowd was so enthusiastic, Meiburg announced that it was by far the band’s best ever show in Denver, and we were treated to a two-song encore to close out an incredible show all around.

-- Tom Murphy

Critic’s Notebook

Personal Bias: I had been expecting Wye Oak to be good but they far exceeded expectations. The same could be said of Shearwater. Random Detail: Wye Oak’s T-shirts had pictures of hands spelling out the band’s name. By the Way: Shearwater just got off tour with Coldplay and is a great example of the better band opening for the more famous act.

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