Shearwater descends on Bottom of the Hill

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Shearwater, totally not at Bottom of the Hill.
PHOTO BY GREG SZETO

Back in 2008, someone at a Shearwater show in Chicago posted a shaky video to YouTube, in which the Austin-based ensemble covered Talk Talk’s “The Rainbow," the ambitiously panoramic opening track from the seminal Spirit of Eden (1988).

Not only did the 10-minute clip showcase a band masterfully replicating a piece of music, previously determined by its creator to be unplayable in a live setting; it demonstrated just how far Shearwater has come since its beginnings in 2001 as a quiet, low-key spinoff of alt-country institution Okkervil River.

The band’s breakthrough effort, Rook (2008), raised the stakes considerably, treating the spacious, naturalistic folk-rock of their earlier output with a loosely psychedelic propulsion (somewhere in between Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” and Neil Young’s “Down By the River”) and a significant expansion of their dynamic range.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the release of Animal Joy: Shearwater’s most unrelentingly loud/quiet/loud statement to date. Last Tuesday, frontman Jonathan Meiburg, and his current, five-piece lineup of supporting players, stopped by Bottom of the Hill in support of their seventh full-length, and first release on Sub Pop.

After two competent, but ultimately dispensable, opening sets from Seattle folk revivalists Gold Leaves, and Australian psych-popsters Husky, Shearwater took the stage authoritatively, beginning with “The Snow Leopard” – the dramatic, erratic climax from Rook.

Undeniably one of the highlights of the evening, it neatly encapsulated Meiburg’s thorough understanding of tension and release, its eerily quiet piano intro crashing into an explosive, beautifully cathartic jam, complete with thunderous drums and crunchy guitar stabs. Did the band shoot their collective wad early on? Arguably. But, what a first impression.

Another outstanding moment came halfway through the show, with “Insolence”, the similarly complex centerpiece from Animal Joy. Shifting between ruminative ballad-territory, and forceful, post-rock aggression, it exemplified Shearwater’s greatest asset: shapeshifting mini-epics whose loud and quiet sections feed symbiotically off one another.

Both “The Snow Leopard” and “Insolence” played to the strengths of Meiburg’s voice, which is a dramatic, versatile instrument, with the soft quiver of Aaron Neville or Roy Orbison, but the ability to pounce like Jeff Buckley at his most confrontational. However, the quieter songs left Meiburg’s vocals longing for the musical backbone they need to truly shine.

Therein lies Shearwater’s greatest fault; about half the time, the vocals are rendered over-theatrical by the the band’s incapacity to keep them in check. So, either the music needed beefing up, or the vocals required a dose of restraint, but something about the status quo certainly felt off.

Meiburg’s facial expressions were compelling, though, in their Jim Varney-esque elasticity. His eyes and mouth opened ferociously wide during more expressive moments, emoting with a “call-the-exorcist” level of wildness.

After a 90-minute set, Meiburg returned to the stage for an encore, which, at some point, crossed the line between “generous” and “overlong." About half the bearded, bespectacled, plaid-wearing crowd filtered out, as Meiburg shared solo material, paid an a capella tribute to Scott Walker, and invited the band back onstage to close with a cover of REM’s “These Days.”

Though not exactly a hostage situation, one couldn’t help but long to give Meiburg the age-old “less is more” lecture. Still, he looked happy and engaged, so it feels a bit unfair to fault him for going overboard out of the goodness of his heart.

Even a decade into their career, Shearwater keeps searching, and refining their sound. Certain elements pale in comparison to others, as evidenced by their inconsistent appearance last Tuesday, but the stronger moments hint at a project with promising shelf life, and massive potential. Give them another ten years, they might bestow us with their Spirit of Eden moment.

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