Live Music + Gig Reviews

Shearwater @ Union Chapel, London

12 May 2009

Sometime Okkervil River founder and avid ornithologist Jonathan Meiburg recently came to the conclusion that his music was meant to be played in churches.

Now, for the first time in the UK, the Texas-dwelling lynchpin is getting to tour some of the land’s most atmospheric places of worship, allowing his dramatic, soaring compositions to take flight.

By second song Rooks Meiburg has confirmed what was already obvious on Shearwater’s five albums: he has an arrestingly powerful voice that is as pure in sound as it is articulate in its emotions. It’s one of Shearwater’s many strengths.

Also by this point that voice has revealed itself as an instrument rather than a straightforward expression of lyrical themes, for Meiburg’s lyrics are, to all but the most devoted twitcher, well nigh impenetrable. There’s a preponderance of oxen scattered about and, here and there, other animalistic reminders that the band are named after a bird. But take this from Century Eyes: “Remember the wrecks of those elegant ships, Turn it off, Turn it off, Look with century eyes well they make you go blind.” Poetic yes; obvious, certainly not.

It matters little, for Shearwater’s music is perfectly suited to its surrounds – at once spiritual, stirring, purposeful and artistic. Material from their first four albums is interspersed with 2008’s stunning Rook album, but there’s also space for two new songs, neither of which are named and both of which are reflective rather than dramatic. As such they punctuate the set well.

Meiburg divides his time between guitar, banjo and keyboard. He’s joined on stage by three friends, one of whom goes by the name of Thor. If you’re going to have a drummer in your band called Thor, he may as well be a hairy beast, and this Thor certainly is. Yet the muppet drummer stereotype ends there, for Thor Harris, like everybody else in Shearwater, is a multi-instrumentalist. He comes to the front of the stage with a hammer dulcimer strapped around his neck at one point; later he indulges in a glock duet with Kimberley Burke, who doubles up as double bassist.

The Rook material has evolved since the recording. Century Eyes gets an extended intro and a rebuilt coda, with more room for trumpet and Meiburg ululating towards the end, sounding for the first time this evening as though he’s attempting to transfigure into one of the birds he so avidly watches in far-flung spots across the globe. This song is a short, sharp burst of raw energy in an otherwise refined, reflective set.

South Col and The Snow Leopard still appear to be inseperable, with the latter’s caressingly beautiful opening giving way to a surely physically challenging final note from that voice. Tonight it’s cut into two, but is no less spine-tingling for it. Meiburg has enough confidence in his material not to end the set with it. Despite its clear likeness to Radiohead‘s Pyramid Song, it is a quite brilliant piece of music and one of the few times Meiburg’s poetry comes across from quasi-mystical to almost descriptive.

“I feel like we’ve been bludgeoning you in this beautiful space,” Meiburg apologises at one point, setting about something gentler. Hardly; he’s merely proved that it’s possible to use a church for music other than worthy finger-picking acoustica. An inevitable standing ovation at the set’s close suggests Shearwater’s audience enjoy a good bludgeon, if that’s what this haunting masterclass in music making was.

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