All photos: Francis Chung from their 2011 appearance at the Black Cat
A steady beat, soaring vocals, and subtle guitar playing that tripped the plane ethereal. These qualities defined the new song Wye Oak opened with, a more somber but enchanting canticle than the inspired rock that followed. It was a simple song that did not sound that way.
They followed by leaping into the coordinated guitar and drum peaks and valleys of “Holy Holy”, a contemplative song with diametrically opposed bombastic riffs thrown in.
The reaction was ebullient. After those two songs Wye Oak probably could have pulled a diva stunt, exited stage right, and driven back up I-95 to the land of Old Bay and Ravens with no explanation and still polled favorably with the audience. And that reaction was well earned.
Andy Stack and his typically drum-related instrumentation generally laid a great foundation for Jenn Wasner guitar licks that at times seemed to have bubbled out of the river Styx, and shook through every individual vertebra from the stage. Wasner’s at times shockingly aggressive guitar playing and often minor key vocals seemed reminiscent of another critical darling, St. Vincent. Wye Oak shares the same underlying angst and wrathful guitar, though they seem to have listened more to The Kinks (whose “Strangers” Wye Oak covers excellently) and Dire Straits than New Wave. In particular Wasner has a special proficiency in effectively alternating between mean, scary solos and wistful verses tinged with bittersweet nostalgia, or vice versa. She and St. Vincent are two of the most effective “heavy” guitarists around right now (listen to the bridge from “Cruel” if you disagree with that statement) and not coincidentally can both flip a switch from poppiness to intimidation mode.
Wasner informed the crowd that this would be their “last show until [they] make another record,” which will be, “a while.” Their touring cycle in support of Civilian began at Black Cat so they viewed this as a fitting coda.
Openers Callers had a jazzy flavor and love of syncopated beats. In what is surely the most Pitchforkian sentence I have ever written, they sounded a bit like a child of Change-era Dismemberment Plan that had been adopted and raised from a young age under joint custody by The Dirty Projectors and the aforementioned Ms. Annie Clark. As you might imagine from that description, they veered towards pretension but successfully avoided crossing the Rubicon of overwhelming self-seriousness—one could speculate broadly that their New Orleans background provides some inoculation against that (though they are now based in Brooklyn according to their website).
One of the strongest songs of their set featured a lower register, more conventional departure from singer Sara Lucas’ typically high-pitched, sibylesque vocalizations, and backup vocals from Wasner, who stood stage left half engulfed in shadow a little like Joni Mitchell singing backup on “Helpless” in The Last Walz. Guitarist Ryan Seaton seemed to have either retuned his guitar to hit a bass line or used a pedal for that effect; I’ll admit that whatever he did on that song ventures outside the extent of my limited knowledge of the instrument.
Later they played an unusually timed encore that sounded like it could be a brief graduate thesis in musical composition. Overall they were one of the best openers I had seen all year and a great fit for Wye Oak. Both hit one of the benchmarks of an exceptional concert: they made you want to go home and listen to them after having already done that for two hours and change.