Kurt Vile and The Violators
The Fresh & Onlys
May 8, 2013
Better than: Listening to high quality Kurt Vile audio files
The Fresh and Onlys were in the middle of a solo section, one more about maintaining the song's relaxed atmosphere than impressive technical skill. Their ongoing set was perfectly enjoyable, but at that moment, a little panic struck. This evening could be extremely boring.
After all, headliner Kurt Vile has almost become notable for how extremely un-notable his stuff is. The fist track off his newest LP, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, is a perfect example. "Wakin on a Pretty Day" is an undeniably beautiful song -- 10-plus minutes of layered twangy guitars, a restrained tempo, and Vile's mumbled melodies. The arrangement perfectly evokes what the title describes. But Vile's sound seems best-suited to listen to in bed when you woke up a bit too early, or perhaps in a sunny meadow at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Live in a club setting? In the worst case, the entire night could turn into one long haze.
Vile wasted no time calming these fears. He started his set off with "Wakin" and -- although it was as long and laid-back as you'd expect -- it became impossible to avoid getting swept up in the building sonics. When the Violators went right into their second song of the evening -- the second song of the new album, "KV Crimes" -- the possibility of the set being the new album played straight through began to look appealing. (Ultimately, less than half of it set came from the new album.)
Vile is almost meticulously monotonous. His signature locks cover his face most of the time; he (and his band) are fairly rigid while playing; and there are very few moments of between-song personality. The extremely subdued performance, however, really makes the moments of variation pop. When Vile does a two-song period of solo acoustic work, it's hard not to immediately think "Dylan" -- especially during "Peeping Tomboy." His mumble is modified to the point that it nearly feels like an impression, but the entire room is leaning slightly forward to hang onto every word: "I don't want to change but I don't want to stay the same... I don't want to give up but I kind of want to lie down."
Vile's choice to not rely on his latest work initially seemed disappointing. In particular, a track like "Pure Pain" would've been a welcome foot-stomper to break the evening up, with its syncopated drum line and sharp riff. But right before the encore, this approach brought out a welcome surprise. Vile ended his initial set with back-to-back songs off Childish Prodigy, the 2009 LP that featured some of the raw noise that has faded away on more recent albums. The fuzzy riffs of "Hunchback" caused a friend to turn and ask, "Since when did Kurt Vile get so heavy metal?" And the singer's screams during the frenetic, controlled chaos of "Freak Train" showed that he could've had a much different career if he wanted. (In some parallel universe, Kurt Vile sits adjacent to ambient noise-rockers like Deerhunter.) "Freak Train" was the only song of the night that solicited a few audible "fuck yeahs" during a solo section.
Vile had one more variation saved for his encore. He played a stripped-down version of "Baby's Arms" into a full-band "Was All Talk," appearing to utilize a recorded drum track as part of the backing for each. It's weird to think that an electronic device injected a bit more life into a live performance, but this is the Kurt Vile experience. He's a machine cranking out flawless rock, and hopefully the delightful repetition of it all doesn't cause you to miss the special moments.
Post-show breakdown: After the show, a friend and I went to a bar down the street. The bartender immediately picked us out as being at the Vile show and asked how the show was -- seemingly so she could then relay her own Vile thoughts. She caught him at Pitchfork Fest in Chicago a few years back. "It was perfect. It was a sunny afternoon, we were tired from the day before, and I just felt like relaxing. Didn't want to dance at all."
Wakin' on a Pretty Day
Girl Called Alex
Snowflakes Are Dancing (solo)
Peeping Tomboy (solo)
Was All Talk