Tuesday’s show at the 9:30 Club was billed as a Wye Oak concert, but before the set began, many in the near-capacity crowd were probably wondering if they had paid $22 to see “New Wye Oak.” After all, the group’s direction-shifting fourth album, “Shriek,” almost completely abandons the electric guitar, which has been the cornerstone of the Baltimore duo’s sound since Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack first released music in 2007.
Wasner began the show playing a stringed instrument, but it was the bass. Stack was behind a drum kit, playing in his trademark one-arm style (his other expertly working a keyboard).
The pair started with “Before” and “The Tower,” two songs from the new album, but by the time they hit the break of the latter — Wasner punching an effects pedal that gave her bass a drill-press urgency — things were feeling pretty familiar, despite the absence of the six-string.
Surprise at the left-turn sound of “Shriek” has been relatively universal, and those who were thrilled by the guitar-driven ups and downs of 2011’s “Civilian” were probably taken aback at the stark, electronics-and-’80s-tinged new tracks. Repeated listenings to the album (which Wasner has said was partly inspired by a creative block she developed around the guitar) reveal that the heart of the duo’s creative power is very much alive; it’s just expressed in different terms. Tuesday’s show made that clear, along with the fact that Wasner’s vocal expression is at an all-time high.
The 80-minute concert was certainly devoted to “Shriek” (they played nearly every song on it), but a rousing cheer went up when Wasner strapped on her guitar for “Holy Holy” early in the show.
The audience, attentive and reverent throughout, swayed politely through most of the new songs — and really got into the Tears for Fears-esque “Logic of Color.” But the real connection came during the older numbers. Unfurling her voice while metronome-like Stack calmly held songs like “Plains,” “Take It In” and “Hot as Day” in place, Wasner embodied the joy she said she was feeling to be playing at the 9:30, where she had attended many shows.
The encore — a slinky, trebly cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and a rip through the title track of “Civilian” — made a fitting capstone to a night that demonstrated Wye Oak’s determination to explore new directions without disowning previous work.
Patrick Foster is a freelance writer.