If you’ve been following Shearwater’s decade-and-a-half long career at all, probably the last thing you expect to think at one of their shows is “this needs more lasers.” The band, which had its origins as a softer, folkier spin-off of Okkervil River, has evolved its sound several times over the years, going from the quiet acoustics of the early releases to the orchestrated art rock of the trilogy of albums referred to as The Island Arc, to the more indie rock sound of their last album, Animal Joy. The band released their eighth proper studio album, Jet Plane and Oxbow, in January, and it’s yet another transition for them. This time they’ve adopted the sounds of the 80s, employing vintage instruments and effects, but rather than simply becoming retro as many bands who go in that direction wind up doing, they manage to create something new from it, yet that is unmistakably Shearwater.
On Thursday evening, frontman Jonathan Meiburg and his cohort brought this new sound to the Rock and Roll Hotel, playing most of the new record. The band this time is almost entirely different from previous outings – other than Meiburg, the only other remaining member from even the last tour is guitarist Lucas Oswald. They are joined this time by Sadie Powers (of Richmond, VA based bands Dead Fame and Positive No) on bass, Josh Halpern (of Austin, TX rock band Marmalakes) on drums, and Emily Lee (of NYC-based fusion ensemble Snake Oil) on keyboards.
The show opened with Meiburg’s face illuminated only by a single LED light on his glove, the synth intro to album-opener “Prime” setting a mysterious mood for the evening and the song building to a crashing exit. The tempo immediately went up for the Talking Heads-meets-Berlin-era Bowie polyrhythms of “Filaments,” one of the highlight tracks of the new album. Only a few older songs made it into the setlist – a rocked-up version of “Rooks” from the band’s 2008 album Rook, and more straightforward readings of “You As You Were” from 2012’s Animal Joy and “Seventy-four, Seventy-five” from 2006’s Palo Santo.
Meiburg has described Jet Plane and Oxbow as a political album, but it’s not one so overt that it gets in your face with the politics or precludes the band having some fun. “This is a song about getting a very severe haircut,” joked Meiburg before launching into “Quiet Americans,” a joke that may have been lost on any audience members who haven’t seen the video for the album’s lead single. Yet they also played with even more urgency than the album itself – “Radio Silence,” in particular, broke down into controlled chaos with a long, overwhelming experimental outro only hinted at by the recorded version. For closing track “Wildlife In America,” Meiburg brought the gloves out again, this time emitting multiple green lasers which created an arcing pattern
When the band returned to the stage for the encore, Meiburg explained that Bowie’s 1979 album Lodger had been very significant to him and the rest of the band, and so even before Bowie’s death, they had decided to learn the entire(!) album. While DC didn’t get to hear them play all of it (only Brooklyn got that lucky), the band did play through two songs from it – the somewhat awkward (even in Bowie’s version) “Move On,” followed by a much more successful rendition of “Look Back in Anger.” They nailed it, with Meiburg’s own vocal stylings fitting the song perfectly. The band then returned to the stage one more time for one of their most definitive tracks, “The Snow Leopard” from Rook.
Cross Record, the Austin-based project of singer Emily Cross and her husband, Dan Duszynski, opened the show with a sound that varied between indie rock and experimental music that would fit well on a David Lynch soundtrack. Their latest album, Wabi-Sabi, was also released in January.