By Ryan Leas
When listening to Wye Oak’s brilliant new album “Civilian,” it is hard to imagine only two people reproducing the reverb-drenched layers of the record’s spectral shoegaze/folk blend. However, at their April 14 show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, the duo, comprised of singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack, proved they could in fact take their music to another level in a live setting.
Despite the serious limitations yielded by having only two people on stage, the band managed to achieve a very full sound. Songs like “Holy Holy” and loping opener “The Alter”were far more visceral than their studio counterparts. The duo makes their evocative live sound possible with their flexibility and skill as musicians. Stack juggles both drum and keyboard duties, simultaneously keeping the rhythm while also playing bass lines or synth parts. Wasner, whether on album or in a live setting, is a stunning singer and guitarist. Her voice toes the line between ghostly and soulful, just as her guitar playing alternates between effects-augmented, delicate folk patterns and gritty Crazyhorse-influenced grunge riffs.
One could suspect a Nico-esque aloofness from Wasner’s beautiful detachment on the album. Despite her ethereal studio presence, Wasner turned out to be down to earth and humorous. She repeatedly thanked the crowd demurely and often joked back and forth with audience members. Even though the Bowery Ballroom is a small venue, the band seemed gracious and daunted to be headlining their own show. All of these moments gave them an earnestness that was casual and endearing, not to mention the fact that Wasner hung out in the crowd, dancing and chatting with fans during the first opening act.
About two-thirds through their main set the band launched into an improbable cover: Danzig’s “Mother.”Transferring the original’s chest-thumping bravado into a bluesy slow burner, the band re-imagined the song to a point where it fit perfectly alongside their own material. Before the gutsy move, Stack apparently asked Wasner to warn the crowd that “it might suck,” as she joked in response, “I’m not going to tell them it might suck, Andy, that would be unprofessional.” After the song, Wasner continued her playful interactions with the audience, explaining the song was “Glenn Danzig-aka the polar opposite of me.” One member of the crowd elicited laughter throughout the venue and shy gratitude from the band when he yelled, “It didn’t suck at all!”
Though the atmosphere was laid-back, the band was anything but, as Wasner had feared, “unprofessional.” Rather, they were passionate throughout. Live, they dial up the quiet verse-loud chorus dynamic that often populates their songs, accentuating the tension-building verses in between cathartic bursts. Wasner’s guitar playing was always the primary guide through these vacillations as she deftly slipped between elusive finger-picking and Dinosaur Jr. levels of fuzz. The influence of J. Mascis manifested itself throughout, whether in the chugging breakdowns of “Dog’s Eyes” or the fireworks at the end of “Civilian.” Wasner’s playing was so intense she broke a string during “The Alter,” the first song of the night.
They wisely showcased the stunning material from “Civilian.” Early on, “Plains”retained the narcotic haze that blankets the album version. Album standout “Hot as Day” received a faithful rendition, augmented by a guest horn player. It was perhaps the album’s incredible title track that garnered the most fervent reaction of the night, as its galloping rhythm evoked the closest thing to dancing one might expect at a Wye Oak show. Coming towards the end of the set, a particularly aqueous version of the epic “We Were Wealth” rounded out the show.
Despite their humility, the band clearly had no trouble captivating the Ballroom. Their live power gave the sense that they could easily fill a much bigger space. If they continue to produce such impressive music and put so much passion and skill into their live shows, there is no doubt that they will soon get such an opportunity.