Dozens of artists have been delivering live covers honoring David Bowie since his passing earlier this year. But Shearwater chose to do something unique with their tribute, something Bowie himself had never attempted: perform his 1979 underrated album Lodger in its entirety. In fact, he rarely played any songs from the LP live, making Shearwater’s attempt completely unprecedented.
Shearwater actually began experimenting with the final entry in the Berlin Trilogy weeks prior to The Thin White Duke’s death. Frontman Jonathan Meiburg had found unexpected solace in the record after a series of harrowing travel adventures in 2015. As he and his band were rehearsing for their tour behind their latest album, Jet Plane and Oxbow, they began toying around with some live renditions of Lodger’s tracks.
It all took on a new meaning when news of Bowie’s passing broke. As Shearwater returned to the road, they inserted Lodger tracks into their setlists as a tribute to the fallen icon. Then one night at a sold out gig in Chicago, they encored by performing the album straight through in its entirety. The next day they were scheduled to perform as part of A.V. Club’s A.V. Undercover series, but so jazzed were they from the previous night’s performance, they asked if they could also record their cover of Lodger. The folks at A.V. wisely agreed, and have now shared the videos as a special pre-episode for their 2016 season. Watch the entire performance via the YouTube playlist above.
Below, read Meiburg’s lengthy statement on how he came to appreciate Lodger, what the band had to do to translate it into a live experience, and what secret (read: funny) bits to look out for in the videos.
MAYBE IT’S JUST A TRICK OF THE MIND
What is it about Lodger? Everything about it seems wrong at first. It was billed as the final volume of Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, but it sure doesn’t sound conclusive; for that matter, it wasn’t recorded in Berlin. Bowie didn’t even follow its release with a tour—just an indelibly weird Saturday Night Live performance and a series of videos in which he destroyed pointedly flimsy sets.
As a collection of songs, it seems eclectic to the point of being slapdash. “Yassassin” was an attempt to invent Turkish reggae; “Move On” is “All the Young Dudes” played backwards, and the singles “DJ”, “Look Back in Anger”, and “Boys Keep Swinging” forman ungainly lump in the middle of the record, like a cow that’s been swallowed by a python. None of the songs really end; they all fade out on one uneasy groove or another, and sonically it’s nowhere near the majesty of “Heroes” or Low. Sonically it sounds claustrophobic and disoriented, and lead guitarist Adrian Belew’s pyrotechnics are shoved down until they’re tinny and contorted, the opposite of Robert Fripp’s explosive work on “Heroes”.
So it’s a little hard to say why this record, more than either of its predecessors, always cheers me up. Maybe it’s Bowie’s gift for making you feel that his mania, his confusion, had something to do with your own; no matter how isolated and estranged from the world you feel, he could reassure you that you weren’t alone. I rediscovered Lodger last year after some wild traveling; in the span of a couple of months I’d been face-to-face with the world’s largest spiders in Guyana and a jaguar in Brazil, certain I was going to die in traffic in Hyderabad, and quaking in terror on a jetliner circling the Persian Gulf as it dumped fuel for an emergency landing. When I finally got home, I wanted to hide in a corner with a blanket over my head and never leave the house again.
Listening to Lodger over and over helped the world seem less frightening, or at least made my own anxiety more digestible. So many of the lines resonated: Red sail action/wake up in the wrong town/boy, I really get around! sums up a dislocated thrill well knownto anyone who’s been on a tour, while the high-speed slideshow of “African Night Flight” nails the feeling of a trip gone sour: Sick of you!/sick of me!/lust for the free life/quashed and maimed/like a valuable loved one/left unnamed!
And touring was on my mind. Our new record was coming out, and I wanted to do something special in the live show. I was listening toLodger for the third time in a row one Saturday morning, dancing and singing along, and thought: What if we just played this? It almost seemed like Bowie had thrown down a gauntlet by namingLodger as one of his favorite albums while rarely (or never) playing its songs, even though the songs seemed fairly…well, playable, with a little work. (“Heroes” would be a different story). We were taking the album apart in tour rehearsals when I got a text from a friend in the middle of the night that read: “Bowie.”
Hours later, the news was everywhere. It was a weird feeling; our little stunt suddenly felt much heavier, and I wondered for a minute if we should put it aside. I had secretly hoped that if we did a really good job, Bowie might hear about it one way or another; maybe I could invite him to our New York show! Now all that vanished in a sobering instant. Now it was just music.
But what music. Lodger turned out to be trickier (and more fun) to play than I’d imagined, and as we peeled back the songs’ sonic layers, they revealed clever and coherent structures under the surface of their desperation and bewilderment. I did my best to serve up ersatz versions of Adrian Belew and Carlos Alomar’s guitar lines (difficult), and to sing without just aping Bowie (nearly impossible), and we invented endings to replace the fade-outs. When we finally started playing the songs live, a few at a time, we were all surprised how alive they felt, how fresh they would sound if they came out today.
At a sold-out night inChicago we figured what the hell and did the whole thing as a 45-minute encore—and the audience went nuts. It had a cumulative effect I hadn’t expected. We were still buzzing when we rolled in to the A.V. Club the next day for “Undercover,” and I asked if we could play Lodger for them, too. (Thanks for going for it, A.V. Club). We even pulled the colored gels out of the fluorescent lights we used in our shows to give the session more of an Isolar II-style atmosphere.
There are plenty of funny moments, of course, since it’s alive one-take; I spaced on my favorite lyric in “Red Money” (Reet-petite and how-de-do!), and you’ll see my mic stand break on “DJ” and then collapse during “Look Back In Anger”. Normally I’d have stopped the song, but that one’s a real basher for the bass and drums, and I didn’t want to put Sadie and Josh through it twice—so I dove to the floor and just kept going. Listening back, I think it turned out pretty well, though I bet it looks ridiculous. But I also can’t think of a better metaphor for Lodger itself. In the weirdest and best way, it’s inspirational music.