Every time Shearwater come to Vienna they play in a larger venue, their début visit to the Chelsea in 2012 having been followed by a 2014 appearance at the Szene Wien. It was inevitable, therefore, that their 2016 tour should bring them to the Arena, which was nicely full on this occasion, a clear sign that more and more people are waking up to the greatness of Jonathan Meiburg and his group. I’m happy, though, for them to remain at this level of support; I wouldn’t much care to see them at the Gasometer, gratifying as such a level of fandom would no doubt be to Meiburg and co.
Anyway, this was an absolutely thrilling concert that pretty much confirmed Shearwater as one of the most daring and powerful forces in rock today. I have to admit that I’ve not gone a bundle on the new album Jet Plane and Oxbow so far, finding it a tad overcooked compared to the Arctic chill of the ‘Island Arc’ trilogy and the impassioned disturbance that animated 2012’s Animal Joy. In a live context, though, and stripped of their excessive studio-based production, Meiburg’s new songs stand revealed as the taut, controlled masterpieces they are. Bristling with barely concealed rage, songs like “Prime” and “A Long Time Away” present a seething vision of contemporary, battle-scarred America.
None of which goes very far towards explaining how enthralling Shearwater are in concert. Meiburg has matured into a vastly confident and watchable frontman, casting green laser beams around the hall with some special pair of gloves, and responding to a deranged fan in the front row’s request for “My Way” during a technical hitch with a droll story culminating in a few lines of the song being delivered in the style of Hootie and the Blowfish. As a guitarist, too, Meiburg has developed dramatically since the last time I saw him. Since he’s not playing keyboards live any more, he’s free to prowl the full extent of the stage, throwing rock star poses right at the edge of the stage and snapping off his tremolo arm during a particularly driven guitar solo. But it’s as a singer that Meiburg impresses most of all, his richly contoured voice giving rugged shape and gravitas to his deeply literate and moving words. As if this weren’t enough, the rest of the group transform Meiburg’s turbulent visions into fevered expressions of simmering violence, with drummer Josh Halpern and bassist Sadie Powers worthy of particular mention.
This was an eventful evening in many respects. In between lunging to remove Meiburg’s discarded tremolo arm from the vice-like grip of the aforementioned deranged fan in the front row, rushing to protect him from a toppling mic stand which Meiburg inadvertently knocked in his direction at the jaw-dropping conclusion of the final encore “Hail Mary”, and stealing an occasional glance at the striking redheaded girl a few places away from me in the front row who seemed to know all the words to all the songs, I found myself wondering whether Shearwater would continue their practice of rounding off their concerts with an astutely chosen cover version, following their electrifying readings of REM’s “These Days” in 2012 and Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” in 2014. The answer, of course, was yes, albeit that the choice of songs was slightly more predictable than before. Coming back onstage for the encores, Meiburg told of how, coming out of a period of intense and draining creative activity, he had turned to David Bowie’s Lodger as a source of fun and inspiration. He had already hatched plans to play the record live in full, plans which inevitably took on the form of a tribute in the months following Bowie’s untimely death. With a crowdfunded studio recording of the album in the works, Shearwater played a brace of songs from the record, a brooding “African Night Flight” topped by a riotous “Look Back In Anger”. As on previous occasions, though, the performance of other people’s songs only served to underline the savage brilliance with which Shearwater go about their own business.