The mosaic greeting you inside St Philip with St Stephen Church reads: "Come in, come in, eternal glory thou shalt win". No doubt Shearwater and principally singer/guitarist Jonathan Meiburg set out with this divine intention, too, with a desire to reward a devoted lot willing to venture to Salford on the wettest night of the year. Indeed, it was only last March that they played in Salford: they draw a sizeable crowd considering.
Yet it doesn't feel like a gig; the hassocks are lying beneath the chairs and the church's play room, with a Level 1 Bishop's Certificate in Children's Ministry blue-tacked to the wall, is brightly lit and in full view: it feels more like a church service. Meiburg picks up on this, inviting the audience to stand up and move closer - "it'll feel more like a rock gig". This, coupled with the oil projector adding a psychedelic touch to a copy of Da Vinci's The Last Supper hanging near the alter, makes things feel slightly more familiar.
In the eleven years since Shearwater began as a side project for Meiburg and now ex-member Will Sheff, many bands have arrived and grown into more celebrated entities, with Deerhunter and, more obviously, The National, cases in point. Yet tonight, particularly with the tracks from recent new album Animal Joy, it's difficult to ignore the similarities between Shearwater and the above. Animal Life has the feel of anything spanning The National's catalogue - the characteristic thumping toms, deep bass lines and piano. Meiburg's vocal, usually at the Mark Hollis end of the spectrum, tonight occasionally assumes the deep baritone of Matt Berninger, supported by the church's ability for creating reverb. You as You Were also carries that typical National feel, with the higher tempo drums and driving bass from Christian Mader, filling in for usual bassist Kimberly Burke, pushing this to a new level compared to the album recording - a real stand out track. Meanwhile, Open Your Houses has that Deerhunter-like, down-tempo yet confident swagger, supported by Mader's bass. It all leaves you with a sense that Shearwater may, in an underappreciated sense, be rather influential in their own way.
After starting the night quietly, Meiburg eventually interacts more with the audience, growing in confidence. But that confidence sometimes slips into rambling; stories about how the sound man set up a remote controlled helicopter and flew it around the church, as well as his own time as a choir boy when he was younger, acknowledge the surroundings but fail to interest particularly. This also comes through Meiburg's playing, with his impromptu and overpowering guitar bursts becoming somewhat tedious: indeed, it does occasionally feel like the Meiburg Show, with the rest of the band, Mader aside, at times looking somewhat anonymous.
Nevertheless, tracks from the new album really do come alive within the space: Breaking the Yearlings bounces off the walls of 187-year old Greek-style church, with the toms and keyboard vibrating and echoing around. The encore is a real highlight as well; generously taking requests from the audience, Meiburg responds by playing favourites Rooks and Century Eyes from 2008's Rook, ending the set on a pleasing high: Rooks shimmers while Century Eyes provides a rousing yet measured conclusion, thanks again to Mader's bass playing.
Overall, while tonight didn't necessarily provide the grand eternal glory hoped, but it did prove more than worthwhile for those who braved the rain and sought musical sanctuary. And, once again, it becomes clear that churches make for cracking venues.