This was a gig worth waiting for – a decade of gutsy creativity and outgrowing genre labels has allowed Wye Oak to build a body of work as substantial as the gargantuan hardwood they’re named after. Some questions lingered before the band’s first Bristol show: will their earlier guitar-led work, so robust and with a crunch suited to the live arena, get much of an airing? Can their newest stuff, in its compelling design and filigree detail, be recreated on stage?
Frontwoman Jenn Wasner has been busy producing Madeline Kenney’s sophomore LP, and Kenney has been supporting Wye Oak on both sides of the Atlantic. Her strong voice has an astringent sweetness, like that of her producer, supported by a loop pedal that catches the percussive jolts and 4AD-ish chimes of her electric guitar. Here, her single ‘Cut Me Off’ comes off somewhere between the Cocteau Twins and This is the Kit, Cat Power being called to mind elsewhere. Representing her many-hued LP as a solo performer necessarily narrows the sonic scope, but when she closes the set with a John Prine cover, it brings a hue we haven’t heard yet: explicitly narrative-led and countrified storytelling is surely one of Kenney’s strengths.
Wye Oak have played as a duo of Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner for years, but the line-up is now bolstered by bassist Will Hackney. Any concerns about realising their recorded identity live are quickly put to rest in a set that leans heavily on The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, helped by the Louisiana’s sound set-up. Opener ‘The Instrument’ showcases Wasner’s down-tuned guitar work and Stack’s flawless rendering of complex rhythms: their chemistry holds these soundscapes together. She switches to keyboards for recent single ‘It Was Not Natural’, and it’s clear how absurdly multi-talented these two are, and how lightly worn that talent is.
An ensemble effort though this may be, we need to talk about Jenn Wasner. One of America’s best living guitarists, she’s also a songwriter of considerable empathy and ambition. Tonight we see the ease with which she plays intricate and perfectly-composed lines, and the lightning thrill of seemingly spontaneous solos. This is a player who swings from elegant math-rock to a free soloing style akin to St. Vincent or Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and it’s a joy to see that skill unfold, as her face contorts along to the lyrics as might that of Bowie or an outlandish lip-syncer. The vocal harmonizer comes out on album highlight ‘Say Hello’, remaining tantalisingly underused in the set.
We’re not interacted with much until two-thirds in, where talk of British castles, Bristol’s coolness and randy ghosts show that the axe woman is great company too. Classic songs like ‘Glory’ and ‘Civilian’ sound massive, and surprise some audience members with their heaviness – the vocal lines in these familiar hits are interestingly performed with looseness of rhythm, as if Wasner is looking for new routes through her own work. Her guitar becomes thunderous in the latter, and my only regret is that the storm didn’t rage for longer.