Shearwater and Wye Oak at Gardner Lounge
Grinnell College, Iowa, April 7, 2010
“Excuse me!” I yelled to the young man who was walking through the parking lot where I ended up. “Could you tell me where Gardner Lounge is?”
I was on the campus of Grinnell College, a private and wildly expensive college located in the sleepy Iowa town of Grinnell (population 9,500). There’s not a lot to do in Grinnell, which is why the college uses some of the $45,000 it charges undergrads each year in tuition to bring in top-tier alternative bands for the students’ amusement. The best part about these shows is that they’re free and they occasionally let the rest of us dumb Iowa natives into their exclusive buildings to witness the event.
“That’s Main Hall.,” explained the student, pointing to the brick building across the street-the same building that I had passed by three or four time prior to seeking help. There were no identifying signs that I could see around the dark building, the grounds wet from a recent spring rainstorm that managed to knock down a few decent sized limbs around the tree-lined campus. Whoever was promoting the event left little trace of the show, as I noticed no handbills letting latecomers know of its whereabouts.
“Gardner Lounge is in the basement of Main Hall.” He continued. The young man began to lose some of his adapted Midwest friendliness and replace it with a little of his hometown suspicion after I asked him if I could get to the room from the front door.
“Why do you want to get in? What do you do?” he asked, nearly demanding an explanation for being on campus.
I understand that times are different now and even expensive private colleges are no longer immune from random gun violence and increasing incidents of sexual assaults.
Hell, I’d want to know what a middle-aged man wandering around in an L.L. Bean field jacket and a Cleveland Browns hat was doing wandering around my college on a Wednesday night.
After I gave him a suitable answer, he seemed to lighten up. He told me that it might be possible to enter the front-provided that I knocked on the door and found a willing person inside Main Hall to open the door for me, or that I could try my luck through the back way, also only accessible through a security key card.
Since I’m a back door man, I tried the rear entrance.
After slipping by a dreadlocked resident who was leaving the building, it dawned on me that Main Hall was a residence hall. I then determined it was a co-ed residence hall after I noticed a young girl in pink sweats glaring at me as she walked by with a duffle bag full of laundry. I heard the sound of music and followed it down a set of stairs to the basement of the building.
Yes, “Gardner Lounge” was essentially a sparsely decorated room in the basement of one of Grinnell College’s residence halls. There was no bar, no pool table, no indication that it was a room of leisure or relaxation. Several squares of fluorescent lights housed in the dropped ceiling normally lit the room where students could gather and sit on an uncomfortable sofa to watch the 27″ television mounted on one of the walls.
There was a two-step stage where the band(s) set up, and a few gelled lights were rigged on either side of the stage behind the rented p.a. I imagined that normally this room would be used for Halloween screenings of Rocky Horror or maybe a few beers were shared while the NCAA tournament played on the color TV. But tonight, Gardner Lounge was being used to feature a pair of relatively well-known indie bands who each had well-received releases on two notable labels (Matador and Merge).
Despite all of this, only a few dozen students could muster the energy to attend.
This was probably of no concern to either band that would still make off with some easy money regardless of the headcount. It also wasn’t much of problem with me, as I’ve grown resentful of large crowds as I’ve grown old and the idea of seeing Wye Oak and Shearwater in the equivalent of a living room setting meant that the show would be a pretty rare event, overall.
On the few times that Wye Oak has passed through the Hawkeye state, I took a pass too. Watching their performance Wednesday night made me disappointed that I had missed those shows and that it’s taken this long to get familiar with their music.
It’s not that Wye Oak are doing anything that hasn’t been done before, but what they are doing is notable and worthy of attention. There’s an inherent element of melancholia in Jenn Wasner’s vocals. The other half—yes, the band is a duo in the sense of the White Stripes with the gender roles reversed—finds drummer Andy Stack addressing his small kit to fit the moment of each song, and he occasionally washes their material with ambient keyboard layers.
Their brief 45-minute set featured a lot of material from 2009’s The Knot, an overlooked gem of loud/quiet passages that works better in the flesh. You get a chance to see that Wasner is a fine guitarist who’s able to translate the bitterness of some of the songs into aggressive bursts of distortion. Then there’s her voice, which one that resembles another Jenn—Jen Trynin—but Wasner’s work tends to be a bit more emotive which suits the material fine.
At the end of the set, Shearwater vocalist Jonathan Meiburg marched on stage with guitar in tow to join Wye Oak for a cover of the Kinks‘ “Strangers.” The gentle refrain of “Strangers on this road we are on / We are not two we are one” hints that if Wasner and Meiburg haven’t found an attraction towards each other on this tour, they’ve at least found a camaraderie that’s only available between two hardworking bands on the road together.
If their set was indeed a high-water mark, then it would take a very good Shearwater performance to overtake it. While still finishing up with the mic levels, tunings, and settling into their respective stage positions, Meiburg began to pound out the two note introduction of “Black Eyes” on the keyboard, and after a powerful declaration of “Come down from the lion’s back!” everyone fell into their roles like clockwork.
By the time they were into “Landscape At Speed,” members had gathered various percussion instruments and walked into the slight crowd for a bit of an extended introduction to the song. A pair of barefoot girls moved to the rhythm in what could be described as an interpretation from the Elaine Benes School of Dance.
The band’s set prominently featured material from The Golden Archipelago and while the album’s stringed moments were lost to a very bare touring edition, the band did remarkable things with their 50-watt combo amps and ever-rotating cast of musicians.
While Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack joined the band on a few songs for communal drumming, the regular cast of Shearwater would often switch instruments and places on stage to adequately recreate the vast worldview of the band’s last three releases.
Most notable was drummer Thor Harris who looked smashing in a sleeveless shirt and magenta pants and who put his crash cymbal up so high (decorated with a pentagram forged out of electrical tape) that he had to bounce off the drum throne to hit it. He left his ride cymbal unsecured, as he’d switch between a few different ones depending on the song and the tone needed for it.
But the man who commanded the most attention was Jonathan Meiburg as he alternated between guitar and keys. It was his voice, of course, that became his primary instrument regardless of what he navigated through his hands and he served each song with a power that others would have probably reserved for larger audiences.
Ending the set with a dramatic “Uniforms,” the band retreated to an adjoining hallway leaving the remaining audience to provide a smattering of appreciative applause. Since this was obviously not a traditional rock show in the truest sense of the word, there was a bit of confusion among those of us who had stayed past midnight to catch the band. Were we to hoop, holler, and pretend this wasn’t as intimate as other shows on their tour schedule? Were we treated to the full set—encore and all—since there was really no need to make a fuss over the false drama that is known as “the encore?” The soundman, noticing our confusion, offered a bit of instruction over the p.a.: “If you keep clapping, they’ll come back and do two more songs.”
Enough said. We pretended Shearwater was Van Halen and that the crowd of 35 had swelled to 35,000. As ridiculous as all of the posturing was, we did get those two extra songs: “Nobody” from Palo Santo and the awesome “The Snow Leopard” from Rook.
When I left, the streets of Grinnell were even more silent as the traffic lights changed from their routine repetition of red-yellow-green to flashing caution. The laundry folk and study group members had all tucked in for the night-still oblivious to the cerebral event that took place in the basement of their home. And yes, it’s a shame that more wasn’t done to get them out for that Wednesday evening and that more wasn’t done to let the rest of the world know of how great a pairing that Grinnell College was blessed with on a Wednesday night.
Yet even after the challenges in just getting to the place that was billed as “free and open to the public,” there’s the selfish side of me that is grateful that I had an opportunity to end up in such an intimate environment for a band that is probably the most qualified to be associated with intimacy.
For the rest of you who are far away from us in the Midwest and won’t have a chance to be a part of something as informal as my experience, go see them anyway. Because Shearwater has a unique ability to transcend their environment and take you beyond your physical surroundings. They’re able to do this on record as we’ve learned, but what you may not know is that their live performances are equally cherished.