Shearwater, Vienna Arena, 27 June 2016

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 a 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.

Shearwater live in Vienna, June 2016

Shearwater, Vienna Szene Wien, 23 April 2014

This year I’ve found myself listening to Shearwater more than just about any other artist, so it was a great pleasure to take my preferred front centre spot at the Szene for what was, remarkably, their third concert in Vienna in as many years (see here for my review of their 2012 visit). Some groups, and Shearwater are one of them, tour so frequently that you can’t help but admire their dedication. The received wisdom goes that groups have to tour in these days of rampant downloading in order to make money from music. But as Shearwater’s singer and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg recently wrote, “Touring is like the rest of American life – only the famous bands make money. The rest of us are doing it for some other reason.” (As an aside, Meiburg once asked people on the group’s Facebook page if they could guess how many copies of their recently released album Fellow Travelers had been sold; the answer was a mere 1500.)

No, it seems to me that touring is what you need to do to form a bedrock of support and goodwill in the world, and it’s certainly what initially made me a fan of Shearwater. As mentioned above, though, I’ve also been playing their records an awful lot this year, particularly 2008’s Rook, 2010’s The Golden Archipelago and 2012’s Animal Joy. The first two of these seem to go together in my mind, consisting as they do of spare, brooding art rock that draws you in with its haunting imagery and restrained instrumental colours. (“An Insular Life” from The Golden Archipelago is my favourite song from this period, a stunning cinematic masterpiece in three minutes.)

Animal Joy was something of a departure for the group, more urgent and direct than its predecessors but no less compelling for all that. And in “You As You Were” and the near-title track “Animal Life” the album contained two of the most potent and dramatic rock songs I’ve heard in many a year. This music is so good that it makes me want to grab everyone I know and make them listen to it, so convinced am I of its dazzling, diamond-hard brilliance. (Since the new one, Fellow Travelers, contains only one Meiburg original among a rash of cover versions, it’s a fairly inessential addition to their catalogue.)

It seems to me, in fact, that there is no-one else in rock doing anything remotely like what Shearwater are doing except for my one great musical obsession, Peter Hammill. This isn’t a comparison I make lightly, but it’s one that makes sense to me given Meiburg’s sharp intelligence, rich voice and gifted way with words, not to mention the grand ambition of his songwriting. In other words I find this music completely spellbinding, from Meiburg’s soaring vocals via his remarkable texts to the way the songs ebb and flow from peak to challenging peak. Shaped by gorgeous melodic touches, the songs speak eloquently of memory, violence and the precarious relationship between human and natural worlds.

Live, Shearwater are a fearsomely powerful outfit, with Meiburg’s up-front guitar and keyboards bolstered by energetic percussion and, well, more guitar and keyboards. Between songs he is witty, relaxed, yet always riveting. His spoken introduction to the song “Home Life”, in which he tells of looking out of his bedroom window as a boy and seeing the lights of radio towers in the distance, is both evocative and strangely moving.

After an enthralling main set, Meiburg returns to the stage alone for a stark solo reading of the anguished “Hail Mary”, slashing furiously at his guitar as his voice echoes around the hushed room. Finally the group send us home with an exuberant cover of Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain”, a fun way to end the evening for sure but one that feels almost too lightweight in comparison to the epic scale of what has gone before.

Shearwater, Vienna Chelsea, 13 April 2012

A very stimulating evening in the company of American art rock quintet Shearwater, playing their first show in Vienna to a sold out Chelsea crowd. By way of background, I only got to know about Shearwater because singer and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg is a former member of Okkervil River, whose last four albums I’ve admired immensely.  Not to mention that Okkervil River’s 2008 concert at Porgy & Bess is in the running for best concert I’ve ever seen. (Despite touring extensively all over Europe last year, they have of course come nowhere near Vienna since that superlative show.) Meiburg appears to have left Okkervil River sometime after 2008’s The Stand Ins, although a close reading of the credits to that and the two previous OR albums reveals that he had no hand in writing any of the songs on them. In theory, therefore, liking Okkervil River was no guarantee that I would also like Shearwater.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried, since Shearwater were a highly impressive outfit in their own right. Meiburg may have lacked something of Will Sheff’s dramatic and powerful stage presence, but he more than made up for it with his searing guitar work and beautifully controlled vocals that constantly threatened to erupt into a stentorian roar – and, indeed, frequently did so. If it was next to impossible to make out most of the words, that was less due to any lack of clear delivery on Meiburg’s part and more a case of his texts having to fight it out for supremacy against the overwhelming force of the group’s sound. With two keyboard players also doubling up on guitar, and a drummer whose unrelenting rhythms were pushed way up high in the mix, the effect was frequently breathtaking.

What I liked most was the gravity and seriousness of it all. Although Meiburg and the rest of the group were relaxed and funny between songs, once in flight (to borrow a metaphor from Meiburg’s beloved birds), they invoked total commitment and an almost confrontational fervour. A song like “Animal Life” begins with a placid tone and an elegant vocal line, before straying unsettlingly into an environment laced with claustrophobic anxiety. Like many of their songs, it ends abruptly and with a minimum of fuss, as does the exuberant cover of REM’s “These Days” with which they close the evening. Stripped of all histrionics and melodrama, Shearwater possess a brooding and ominous attitude that grips the listener tightly by the throat.