Kurt Vile and the Violators
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Better than: The indie rock variety show that it could have been.
And here is Jennifer Herrema, a veteran rocker formerly of Royal Trux, then of RTX, which now calls itself Black Bananas, sashaying her way around the Fillmore stage in snakeskin cowboy boots and a drab hoodie, her fingers clinging to a mostly empty champagne bottle, her eyes hidden behind a curtain of bangs. She is flirting with her lanky guitar player, sometimes seemingly trying to push him over. She is occasionally laying down onstage, muttering something about building her "own special fort." And she is barely singing. As the frontwoman, Herrema is theoretically supposed to be an ambassador to the audience, the human at the front of the half-butt-rock, half-beat-music blare emanating from her bandmates' electronics and guitar. Instead she is to an alarming degree the personification of "I don't give a fuck."
Except, it turns out, she does. When the MPC beats peter out and the snakeskin-textured strat has been milked of all its wank, Herrema is pissed to hear almost no applause: "Are you kidding me? Are you fucking serious?" Her audience -- what little of it has remained up front -- is instead standing dumbfounded, possibly terrified. Herrera, in her shredded jeans, hidden face, and stumbling apathy, is an L.A. nightmare away from what the Kurt Vile crowd expected. The band sounds Van Halen and Suicide filtered through Araabmuzik, with walls of ear-stinging treble buttressed by the incessant thump of sampled beats. Its frontwoman is personifying raw chaos right before our eyes. This is not the polite indie rock we're used to in 2012.
Indeed, if Black Bananas' blare is difficult to parse on record, it's nearly impossible live with Herrema's capricious vocal contributions and an entire second P.A. onstage. Still, a few tracks, like "Rad Times" and "Hot Stupid" come through like thrilling, devil-horn-raising messes that somehow meld the distorted abandon of rock with the groove of funk or hip-hop. And although technically the worst band of the three that performed at the Fillmore last night, Herrema's Black Bananas were definitely the most exciting.
First up was True Widow, a Dallas three-piece that specializes in dirgey, low-end rumble, with crawling tempos and detuned guitars. It was -- for anyone into that sort of thing -- marvelous. Like shoegaze-y slowcore, True Widow elevated elegant temples of gloom, all very similar but none the worse for it. Event seven minutes of "Blooden Horse" felt like an oasis of gut-shaking calm. The band's live presence, like its music, was notably restrained, too -- making its contrast with follower Black Bananas all the more sharp.
The room didn't come close to filling up until headliner Kurt Vile went on around 10. After the unbridled mayhem of Black Bananas, Vile's gracious persona and triple-guitar band felt familiar, but not tired. Vile is one of a few guitar heroes of the young generation -- not of the shreddy Sleigh Bells or Screaming Females type, but more of a finger-picking folkie with a taste for fuzz pedals. He loses himself in clouds of reverb and layers of guitar on his records sometime, but live, Vile songs got a muscular backbone when it was called for and a pleasant emptiness when it wasn't. His voice possesses a chewy drawl, and his meandering vocal phrasing on songs like "Peeping Tomboy" added elements of weirdness to what was otherwise a pretty, but conventional folk song.
About the worst thing you could say of Vile is that his glimmering guitar-rock is solidly conventional. But it's hard to worry too much about that, because even Vile's big, two-chord strutters are so meaty and satisfying that their indebtedness to the past feels like an an afterthought. The moments when Vile sent his bandmates away were some of the best: Just him, an acoustic guitar set to an open tuning, a few delicate melodic flutters, and that odd drawl moaning away. He was the very picture of delicate control and earnest competence. Which made the choice of Black Bananas as his support act all the more interesting.
Young'uns: Totally freaked out some college kids when I told them that Herrema put out her first record with Royal Trux in 1988. "So she's, like, thirty!?" they gaped.
Constant hitmaker: My favorite Vile songs were the obvious ones: "Freeway," "Jesus Freak" (which got a wah-wah treament), "Freak Train," "Peeping Tomboy," and the two-chord strutter mentioned above whose name I don't know. Credit must be given to his drummer, who bolstered the band's airy chords with a giant kick drum and amazing work on the toms. I do wish they'd played "Puppet to the Man" though.
Bye bye: After lying down for a while during the set, Black Bananas' Herrema muttered something about the flashing lights. Then she muttered something else that neither I nor anyone else around me could understand, and her band abruptly left the stage. It was a weird ending to a very weird set.