By Chad Swiatecki/Special to the American-Statesman
Sometimes you run into a band at exactly the wrong time.
Consider summer 2008, when Austin art rockers Shearwater were in the middle of their Island Arc trilogy of albums (2007’s “Palo Santo”, 2008’s “Rook” and 2010’s “The Golden Archipelago”) that found the band crafting crystalline wisps of songs so delicate and intricate that it seemed they’d crumble and drift away in a stiff breeze.
That kind of music was very much not what this writer was looking for at that time of life, having just relocated to Austin and carrying an ear for bands with a lot more volume and forward velocity. So after a listen or two to the much-praised “Rook,” a “not for me” judgement was rendered and not much further mind was paid to the work of band honcho Jonathan Meiburg and the often shifting lineup of musicians around him.
Fast forward to December 2015, when a throbbing synth-y Bowie-esque tune called “Quiet Americans” appears on local radio. The realization that – beginning in 2010 or so – Shearwater had gradually soundshifted into a band with more menace and heft necessitated a reevaluation, and the possibility that January’s “Jet Plane And Oxbow” could be one of the year’s best albums.
The months since have seen the band on the road for five tour cycles across the U.S. and Europe, with Saturday’s show at 3Ten marking the first in Austin since a February tour kickoff.
That live workload and Meiburg’s 16 years at the wheel of Shearwater provide the confidence needed to shift from occasional flashes of older material, where Meiburg gets more chance to utilize a dramatic falsetto vocal, to the newer, aggressive songs that pulse and twist, punctuated by three- and four-note keyboard patterns provided live by Emily Lee.
A note needs to be made about Meiburg’s good-natured and professional demeanor after chipping a front tooth on his microphone two songs into the night, having a laugh about never suffering such a mishap in 15 years of touring and then soldiering on.
Meiburg’s penchant for painting lyrical landscape and wildlife tableaus for much of his career made “Jet Plane And Oxbow” noteworthy for another reason since its songs are opaquely political throughout.
Introducing “Quiet Americans” – key lyric, “Our dull silence/Our disconnected lives/Pull out the lightning dust, at the mention of his name” – Meiburg said the song that was written as the Donald Trump presidential campaign was gaining steam at first had an “extremely obscure” meaning that has now become open and apparent.
The accusatory snarl in those lyrics and elsewhere on the newer “Pale Kings,” and 2012’s “You As You Were” helped provide contrast during the roughly 90 minute set, with Meiburg alternating from his reed-y alto vocals to both operatic and menacing personas at needed turns.
By the time the quintet was joined by opening band Cross Record for a celebratory encore run through David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” and “Look Back In Anger” – the second captured on this year’s “Shearwater Plays Lodger” album – it was crystal clear that Shearwater has grown and evolved. It’s a band with songs that can stand statue still, or rumble like a tank as needed.
A Long Time Away
You As You Were
Wildlife In America
Seventy Four, Seventy Five
Landscape At Speed
Stay Light At Clouds Hills
Look Back In Anger