Saturday, May 10, 2014

Birdwatching: Shearwater - at La Flèche D'Or, Paris

© Simon Poulter 2014

The muso's life is supposed to be about taking chances. Regularly escaping the comfort zone to give a whirl to some band you've never actually heard before, and, on paper, would probably walk a mile to avoid, but on a damp Tuesday evening offers sufficient curiosity value – and a cheap bar - to draw you in.

Paris, like any other metropolis, has no shortage of venues with which you can while away an evening in the company of winsome singer-songwriters, jazz acts, wannabe Springsteens and the usual plethora of indie bands.

In this spirit, WWDBD? has ventured into the far eastern reaches of the French capital to arrive at a brown-brick former railway station building sandwiched between a dingy bar and one of those iffy-looking shops selling phone cards of questionable provenance.

This is La Flèche D'Or, once part of the Gare Charonne, the railway station that linked Paris to London via the Calais line long before Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel came along. For the most part, the venue's mainstays are the obscure, the unknown and the hopeful. But tonight it is hosting a band which, no disrespect intended, should be playing a much bigger room, and to a much bigger crowd: Shearwater.

Formed 13 years ago in the thriving alt.texas.rock petri dish that is Austin, from the remnants of the much-feted Okkervil River, Shearwater is the product of the extraordinarily amiable and much travelled ornithologist Jonathan Meiburg and Okkervil bandmate Will Sheff (who is now back in the Okkervil line-up).

In the years since they have evolved through brilliant albums like Rook, The Golden Archipelago and their most recent set of original material, Animal Joy, plus last years' eclectic covers set, Fellow Travellers, carving a distinct sound anchored in archetypal indie guitar pop. I

t's never fair to make obvious comparisons with better known bands, but to pitch Shearwater correctly, imagine a niche somewhere between Elbow and Snow Patrol. This might also explain their four-night support gig for Coldplay a few years ago, something Meiberg self-effacingly enjoyed for its novelty value ("I yelled 'Hello Las Vegas' and for the only time in my life, 20,000 people went 'Aaaah!'" he has told the blog).

He says that, but you suspect he's happier in more intimate surroundings. Which brings me to Talk Talk, one of the finest bands of the 1980s and masters of creating enthrallingly claustrophobic theatre out of a combination of Mark Hollis's Scott Walker-like timbre and the intensity of songs of rich melodrama. There is no escaping the uncanny vocal similarity between Meiberg and Hollis, and even if I crassly describe Shearwater as the 'new' Talk Talk, I won't apologise. I can't think of a finer reference point, quite frankly.

© Simon Poulter 2014
And so to La Flèche D'Or. Meiburg might be happier in more modest surroundings, but, as he politely comments, this is like playing to his front room. With a crowd size to match. The five-piece touring band - Meiberg, producer-drummer Danny Reich, Abram Shook on bass, Lucas Oswald on guitar and keys, and opening act (and a member of Peter Gabriel's 2010 tour) Jesca Hoop on backing vocals, sundry instruments and the occasional awkward contribution to Meiburg's inter-song banter, this couldn't be any greater antithesis to stadium rock. In fact, the stage is so small it's more of an exercise in ergonomics.

The delicate Hidden Lakes opens the set with its delicate xylophone pattern, before heading into the pounding Animal Life from the Animal Joy album. From the same album, Breaking The Yearlings gives the evening's first blast of the Talk Talk similarity. With its stabbing bass and Manzarekish organ, it showcases both Meiburg's vocal range and the interest in ornithology that has peppered Shearwater's albums with bird references, not to mention the band's name itself. It is short, sweet and to the point.

Being Paris in the springtime, and being a few minutes shy of 9pm, it is still light outside La Flèche D'Or's period station windows, something Meiburg notes for its novelty: "We've spent all out touring lives in a dungeon," he deadpans before launching into Rooks to yelps of delight from the audience of predominantly partisan punters.

Another Rook track, Home Life, reflects on Meiburg's Baltimore upbringing, explaining how it was little like the city depicted on The Wire. The song's sepia tinged nostalgia is enhanced by a gorgeously dreamy ambience, with Reich rolling around his tom-toms with mallets to spooky effect.

This eeriness is maintained by Animal Joy's Insolence, its attritional, percussive progress stretching the noirish verses before soaring, anthemic choruses punch the ceiling. This leads sequentially into the next track on Animal JoyImmaculate, a guitar rocker with a gloriously 80s vibe to it which recounts the story of a police-evading miscreant pursuing the "respectable life".

© Simon Poulter 2014

Last year's Fellow Travellers album found Shearwater attempting a similar song-swap approach as  Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back project, and with a similarly eclectic profile (a delightfully contrary version of Coldplay's Hurts Like Heaven being the only 'mainstream' contribution to the 10-song selection).

For the live show, Shearwater have selected a trio of Fellow Travellers songs: Dinosaur Jr's unexpected 80s hit Natural One gets a Californian rock-funk stomp treatment, to be followed by Xiu-Xiu's I Luv the Valley OH!, which kicks in with razor-like fuzz guitar an sparks some mild frugging amongst the audience which had hitherto been content with some light foot tapping.

The third of this sequence is Ambiguity, a cover of the song by English musician/poet David Thomas Broughton, and arguably the most challenging of the Shearwater's set, from its bittersweet, jangling guitar beginnings to its ambient ending - replete with recordings of birds on the Falkland Islands, as you do - which provided an unfortunate struggle with microphone feedback for the sound engineer at the back of the room.

Plenty of rock stars have extraneous interests. Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson is a commercial airline pilot, Phil Collins has a recreation of the Alamo in his attic, and Ted Nugent is a gun nut. Jonathan Meiburg's interests are all the more wholesome: his academic studies took him to some of the world's most remote communities, from the Falklands to Baffin Island, and from Tierra del Fuego to an aboriginal settlement, where his encounter with a charismatic aboriginal produced Castaways and its apparent rail at colonialism.

You As You Were from Animal Joy ends the set proper with a pulsing piano and a pounding crescendo before the band make a brief exit - presumably to huddle in what cramped space passes as the venue's dressing room - before returning with the brooding A Wake For The Minotaur, the only track of original Shearwater material on Fellow Travellers. It's an emotive song, with Meiburg supplanting the album version's vocalist, Sharon van Etten, to deliver somewhat vituperative lines such as "The world turns and turns, a tear in the darkness, a hole in the light, I'll breathe in the silence, I'll laugh till I die".

Shearwater end on the uplifting high of Clinic's Tomorrow, completing a 15-song set that, by its end, has the unusual effect of relieving the audience of the sensation of being in a small venue bereft of the larger crowds this band truly deserves to be playing to. Perhaps the choice of such a small room was an aberration on the part of their promoter: in Meiberg's own words, they've played in every kind of venue "from dives in Oklahoma and squats in Slovenia to the Fillmore West, the Bataclan, and the MGM Grand [in Las Vegas as Coldplay's opening act], with a sound that fill the largest of concert halls without any difficulty.

Not that I'm trying to promote stadium rock. Frankly, the smaller the venue, the happier the me. But hopefully the next time I see Shearwater, it will be in a hall to suit the undoubted enormity of both their sound and their brilliance.

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