Wye Oak – The Irenic, San Diego – July 17, 2016


I’d never been to a show at The Irenic before, even though my daughter lives on the same block.  That proximity worked out well, as we (myself and both daughters) only had to walk across the street for the show after having a pre-show adult beverage.

At first the venue is a little off-putting, since when it isn’t hosting all-ages concerts, it’s a church.  Once you get used that, though, it really is a nice, intimate location.  The stage is raised, but not too high – so the audience feels, and really is, close to the performers.  The standing room only floor slopes upward steadily so you can stand anywhere and still have a good view of the stage.  I’ve seen two shows there by now (including The Joy Formidable two days after this) and both times they used just a basic house lighting setup.  This may not work as well for some bands that depend heavily on stagecraft and image – but for a band like Wye Oak I believe the minimal lighting effects helped keep the focus more on the exceptional songs themselves.

Wye Oak is a Baltimore indie-rock duo formed in 2006, and while they were certainly swept along on the rising tide of that decade’s neo-folk movement, they never fully belonged in that genre.  Their music ranges from laid-back and spare to noisy guitar freak-outs and Wye Oak often likes to dole out its often melancholy songs with a big helping of distortion and feedback. They showcased these dynamics with songs like the restrained, yet driving “Holy Holy,” and the galloping soft/loud/soft/really-fucking-loud structure of “Civilian.”  The latter number gave the band a big mid-career boost when it was used during the closing montage of an early The Walking Dead episode.

[above are two short clips of “Civilian” from this show]

While lead vocalist Jen Wasner switches between guitar and bass (she does have a keyboard available for a few parts), her band-mate Andy Stack handles drums and keyboards (and backing vocals) simultaneously.  For most of the set he plays drums one-handed while handling keys with the other.  This is an impressive feat to observe and makes the band sound much larger than a duo.

Playing only two songs from earlier in their career, “I Hope You Die” from My Neighbor/My Creator and “For Prayer” from The Knot, the band focused on their output beginning with 2011’s Civilian.  Along with four songs from that album, they included five songs from the 2014 followup, Shriek, which had Wasner switching from guitar to bass on most songs.  While the sounds of those two albums are quite distinct from one another, in concert they fit together seamlessly to create a broader palette for the band to draw on.  The remainder of the songs in this 15 number set came from their recent EP, Tween, which hasn’t been officially released yet but was for sale at the show (quick review: I LIKE IT!).

Considering the setting, the show ended fittingly with Holy Holy, and while the lyrics may not necessarily be religious, they certainly express aspects of belief and faith. The song began with an insistent Sonic Youth inspired riff, then surged forward, pulled back, drove ahead again, and finally released into a long, exultant and noisy coda that summed up perfectly the energy and feeling of the entire performance.

[above are two short clips of “Holy, Holy” from this show]

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