Saturday, 20 February 2016

975 SHEARWATER, Cross Record, Bristol Fleece, Thursday 18th February 2016

And here’s something completely different… more Texans tonight, in Austin-based band Shearwater, but a considerably more cerebral proposition, so none of the Bowling For Soup shenanigans expected from this lot! I’d caught on to this band thanks to their splendid slice of windswept and widescreen Americana, 2012’s “Animal Joy”, and enjoyed them immensely at this very venue on their tour cycle for said album (gig 865), so would likely have been well up for this one anyway. However, their brand new CD “Jet Plane And Oxbow” nailed it totally for me; adding an extra dimension of power, punch and dynamism to their thoughtful, intelligent, eclectic and highly literate UK alt-rock stylings, it’s easily their best album for me, so I was eager to see this material delivered “live”.

Tim and I got tix sorted well in advance; however on the day Tim and his lady were grabbed by a nasty virus and cried off, and thus it was that fellow gig-counter Stuart joined me at very short notice for a swift jaunt down to The Fleece, the muso rock chat making the miles fly by. Parked up easily, just round the corner, and hit the very quiet venue dead on 8. Support act Cross Record joined us early at 20 past 8; Emily and Dan, a husband/wife duo whose largely insubstantial material was smothered and suffocated by swathes of effects and keyboard sonics. I’d checked out some of their intriguing ethereal vignettes earlier, but “live” they were a disappointment; I found the sweetly cloying vocalist’s between-song banter (“my dad’s here tonight – he started up a “Dan’s not a wanker” chant at our wedding!”) better than their somewhat jarring juxtaposition of hushed melody and noise. Sorry, not for me.

The place was still only about 2/3rds full when the 5-piece Shearwater took the stage, again early at 9.20 and led by very tall vocalist and mainman Jonathan Meiberg. Either ignorant or oblivious to the meagre turnout, however, they set to their task with gusto and quickly demonstrated that the band’s new-found power and dynamism is not solely confined to the studio. New CD opener, “Prime”, kicking off the set, was a melange of dramatic drums and oscillating keys, with Meiberg’s excellent dark, rich voice a clarion call to arms. “Filaments”, next up, was a deliciously dark, claustrophobic number recalling early Comsat Angels, accentuated by the vertical fluorescent strip lighting casting a red pall over the stage. Meiberg then announced, “it’s great to be back at The Fleece, the inexplicably best-sounding stone room in the universe!”

Praise apart for the Fleece’s sound, Shearwater made the most of it tonight with a superb set bristling with thrilling crescendos, widescreen tempestuous soundscapes and atmospherics, and anthemic, soaring choruses. “Quiet Americans” was a delicious Bowie-esque “Young Americans” pastiche, and “Wildlife”’s skyscraping hook gave Meiberg’s voice a serious workout. However the best was saved for “Pale Kings”; introduced by Meiberg about, “surviving an election cycle,” this was a brilliantly building thrill-ride redolent of U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” and featuring some Edge-style guitar licks from Meiberg! “Backchannels” (“about that little voice in the back of your hear that tells you you should kill yourself…”) was an understandably morose and melancholic mood-piece, but closer “Stray Light” saw Meiberg donning some green laser gloves for a dramatic visual finale (by way of explanation for said gloves, Meiberg offered, “what would my 8-year old self think was cool?”)

For the encore, we had a lengthy and entertaining preamble from the immensely erudite and learned Meiberg about catching vampire fish in South America (!), then an unexpected duo of covers from Bowie’s “Lodger”, the backwards drumbeat and Eastern influence of “African Night Flight” and the clattering rhythm and euphoric hook of “Look Back In Anger”, which nailed Meiberg’s influences to the mast somewhat, but formed a perfect punctuation to an unexpectedly upfront, dynamic and downright splendid set. A bit of face time with the reserved but friendly singer afterwards was a nice way to end a fine evening in great company both off and onstage. If there’s any justice, “Jet Plane And Oxbow” should give Shearwater the deserved boost that War On Drugs received with “Lost In The Dream”. We’ll see…

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