WYE OAK live at The Space. Hamden CT. 7.5.12
The best live shows are those which radically change an audience member’s perspective of a band’s recorded music and redefine the context in which he or she views that particular band’s creative output. I gauge the shows I see by this definition because I think it helps me rate more clearly and be as objective as possible — a tricky thing to do when dealing with an entirely subjective art form. By this definition, a lackluster performance by my favorite band would be worth less to me than a surprisingly great performance delivered by some local act of which I didn’t think much before. Ascribing to this live show philosophy discourages potentially harmful idol worship and opens one up to pleasant surprises — surprises very much like the one that I received last night at The Space.
To be honest, I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about Wye Oak prior to the show, nor did I expect much from them. The Baltimore duo has released three records since their founding in 2006, but I’ve only spent real time with Civilian, their 2011 breakout LP. Civilian never exactly gripped me, but there was something oddly captivating about the record. Frankly though, I decided to go to the show last night largely out of obligation to acknowledge their critical praise, and because it provided a good excuse for a date. Although I was only a passive fan at the time that I arrived, I was impressed by how many people seemed to be genuinely excited to be there. Even with only two bands on the bill, the show drew one of the most impressive crowds that I’ve seen at The Space in a long time. The venue seemed thoroughly packed throughout the entire show, and murmurs of excitement drifted through the audience in anticipation of the 9 PM start time.
The fellow Baltimore act Other Colors opened the show with a lucid, beach rock sound that even they seemed to recognize was a little played out. This show was their first on a string of tour dates with Wye Oak, and since they evidently lack a following outside of the Baltimore scene, they seemed very grateful to be playing with such an established band. Watching their set, it was clear that they were self-aware about their relative lateness to the game; their complacent, reverb-heavy pop sound was nice enough, but they were clearly straining to stand out through the use of instrumental backing tracks and unusual guitar tunings. Frontman Will Ryerson managed to get some pretty interesting sounds out of his 5-string Fender Jaguar by essentially playing it upside down and left-handed. The highlight of their set came in the middle, when the band brought none other than Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner herself onstage for a moody duet piece that got the crowd psyched up for the headlining performance afterwards.
When Wye Oak’s two members took the stage, they placed themselves relatively far apart from each other, taking up much more stage space than any duo normally would. This turned out to be rather appropriate in a way, as they managed to sound both better and more expansive than many bands twice their size. Multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack spent most of his time on drums and percussion, but also tried his hand at electric bass and synth during the set, occasionally all at the same time. Wasner herself was armed with a formidable arsenal of effects pedals and an array of sexy Reverend guitars, the same rare brand used by Greg Horbal of The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die.
With a mere glimpse at the band’s impressive live setup, I could already feel my perception of Wye Oak starting to change as they began their set. I had never been sure how to classify the group other than as an “indie rock band,” but as they powered through their lengthy and varied setlist, I soon began to formulate an idea of who Wye Oak really was. They opened with two new tracks featuring a hard-edged guitar sound and fleet-fingered riffing that called to mind the work of St. Vincent, both of which blew me away. Following the new material with a rousing performance of “Holy Holy,” a rollicking standout from Civilian, was an inspired move that absolutely cemented that track’s indie rock anthem-status in my mind. Soon after, the band performed their new single “Spiral,” introducing it as a “disco song” and demonstrating even more versatility as they eased into the song’s jerky new wave rhythm. A well-sequenced assortment of Civilian tracks, new songs, and some older material (including an impromptu performance of “Take It In” from 2009’s The Knot) comprised the rest of the setlist.
The highlights were numerous and varied, but many centered around Wasner. Her guitar and voice worked in tandem, complementing each other and creating a stark sonic contrast when the moment called for it. Towards the end of the set, “Dogs Eyes” veered wildly from bubbly power-chord pop to droney, distorted blues, while their set closer “I Hope You Die” mixed singer/songwriter overshare with atmospheric guitar melodies and synth inflections. Also towards the end, the title track from Civilian came across as a heartbreaking mid-tempo anthem that may or may not have made a large contingent of the male audience members fall in love with Jenn Wasner. (Editorial note: If I’m trying to avoid sullying my esteemed critical perspective with subjectivity, I really do need to stop falling in love with so many talented female artists at shows…)
The band returned for a brief encore, which is always kind of pointless at The Space since there is no backstage area. After walking awkwardly through the crowd and back again, Wye Oak played two more tracks: the upbeat “Prayer” from The Knot and the gentle, subtly crushing Civilian closer “Doubt,” which Wasner performed solo, evoking the melodramatic folk of her collaborator Sharon Van Etten.
Earlier in the show, the band acknowledged that this was their first traditional live performance since February, which is a relatively long time for a band powered by internet buzz to go without touring. But in that time, some of which they probably spent recording the new material that they debuted last night, it’s very possible that Wye Oak discovered a part of themselves that was not conveyed on Civilian or on their past records. Maybe it’s been there all along, and I just had to have it forced into my eyes and ears to recognize it. Either way, this live show was a truly special event. I may have been missing out on Wye Oak earlier, but I certainly won’t be anymore.
Setlist - 7/5/12:
- 1. “Too Right” (unreleased)
- 2. “Better” (unreleased)
- 3. “Holy Holy”
- 4. “Plains”
- 5. “Spiral”
- 6. “Dreaming” (unreleased)
- 7. “Take It In”
- 8. “Hot As Day”
- 9. “My Creator”
- 10. “Dogs Eyes”
- 11. “Civilian”
- 12. “That I Do”
- 13. “I Hope You Die”
- 14. “Prayer” (encore)
- 15. “Doubt” (encore)