An auspicious landmark reached with this gig, namely the 50th time I’ve been to my most-visited venue The Fleece! And a new band for me this year; Shearwater, one of Tim’s recommendations, but one I would likely have picked up on anyway, mainly due to their close association with last year’s US alt-rock finds Okkervil River (indeed, Shearwater mainman Jonathan Meiburg was a former Okkervil River member, and initially formed Shearwater together with OR main guy Will Sheff. Incestuous stuff, no?). Their current album “Animal Joy” is a varied and eclectic blend of US alt-rock styles, intelligent song structures and widescreen anthemic melodies, more uptempo overall than previous offerings whilst still retaining some stark, quiet moments. This gig therefore promised to be a potential revelation in the same vein as Okkervil River’s Trinity gig last Autumn. Let’s see…
A late afternoon family gathering at a carvery pub to celebrate my father-in-law’s birthday nearly turned things pear shaped for the gig, though, as our dessert took over half an hour to arrive after ordering it! Rach dropped us off at Tim’s on the way by, half an hour later than planned, and we hit the road for a nevertheless unimpeded blast down a murky M4, parking easily and hitting the quiet venue at 8.15. So we were unfortunately well in time to catch support act Will Samson, who made me wish I’d stayed later at the carvery for coffee and liqueur! And I don’t drink either… He was clearly trying to be Jeff Buckley with a high-pitched voice and weird guitar effects, but failing drastically, his moribund, morose little tunes so stripped back as to be virtually naked, and the lengthy guitar reverb to close out a dreadfully dull set was just self-indulgence of the highest order.
It seemed I wasn’t the only one with this view, as upon his departure at 9, the place filled up considerably! By no means a sell-out, there was nevertheless a respectable crowd to welcome Jonathan and his 5-piece Shearwater onstage at 9.30, the guys opening with a menacing, discordant opener, the tall Jonathan already coaxing feedback out of his guitar with evident conviction before an impressive double-drum climax. “Animal Life”, followed, the thrilling high point of their current album, Jonathan’s lilting, octave-straddling and almost operatic voice allowing the song to build, then really take flight in a thankfully elongated and exhilaratingly soaring climax. Great stuff!
“I think [the previous place we played in Bristol] wanted Texan singer-songwriters; I didn’t have a hat or three names!” commented Jonathan before promising to get “real loud” for the galloping keyboard intro to “You As You Were”. I’d heard that he and Sheff originally formed Shearwater to play quieter material than the Okkervil River oeuvre would allow; if so, he’s changed tack notably of late, as the whole set was powerful, strident and occasionally thrillingly noisy, adding dynamism to their baroque slices of haunting drama. The excellent “Immaculate” was a “Murmur” era REM-like jangle rush, and the deliciously off-kilter “Pushing The River”, next up, recalled “Photo Album” era Death Cab For Cutie (in fact, a lot of the material on show tonight, mainly drawn from their current album, featured unusual, off-beat time signatures, but everything held together impressively thanks to excellent drummer Danny Reisch). An interesting story from Jonathan of finding a sperm whale’s tooth while out cliff-walking in the Falklands (!) preceded an almost funky tribal chant-propelled “Breaking The Yearlings” and underlined Jonathan’s well-travelled approach to life, evident in his lyrics which evoke his love of nature.
After a splendid hour set, Jonathan returned alone, swigging a “dangerous amount of whisky” before embarking on a solo “Dread Sovereign”, then a slightly unnecessary 7 song (!) encore concluded with a final raucous “Rooks” before Jonathan, visibly surprised and moved at the turnout tonight, took in the deserved applause. A set which for me didn’t really need such a lengthy punctuation mark, this was nevertheless damn fine stuff from another impressive and intelligent US alt-rock band. Shame about the lack of a set-list to grab, particularly as so few numbers were actually introduced, but hey, I’m splitting hairs here. Lovely stuff, fully deserving of this landmark 50th!