Kurt Vile (photo: Sophia Apt)
The band walked on stage, Vile downed his beer and said “sup.” His shirt said “What’s up kooks.”
Strangely, seeing Vile perform only amplifies a feeling in a lot of his music, the feeling that whoever he is, is far away. Between songs he’d look off into the back corner of the Fillmore, where the walls meet. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about looking there, away from anyone in the audience, that helped him hold his ground on stage, night after night around the world.
Kurt Vile & The Violators’ show on Friday October, 16 was a lot of things. It was messy when it needed to be. It was quiet, sometimes. He and his guitar screamed, sometimes at the same time. It was crowded, from the first of three sets (Heron Oblivion and Cass McCombs opened), up ’til the time-honored tradition of the patrons funneling down the stairs to their free poster and night air.
Their set was received with ready affection, like opening a gift you knew was coming. And according to Vile, it had “the best audience yet.” But the things he said and sang during the set may or may not be completely “true”, and the feeling that he may or may not be completely “true” is maybe his most biggest charm.
b’lieve i’m goin down, Kurt Vile’s sixth album, came out a little less than a month ago. Just enough time for the audience to get to know the album, ask it some questions and make up their answers. It seemed like the crowd had, for the most part, done their Vile homework. Newer songs were met with open arms, particularly “Stand Inside,” and older songs were met with equal fervor – songs like “Freak Train” and “He’s Alright.” It wasn’t always a particularly interactive show, but I think it was an implicit understanding that Kurt Vile singing in front of an audience isn’t the same as Vile singing to an audience.
Yes, people danced, swayed and moved accordingly. But at one point, when he started to play “He’s Alright,” the crowd started clapping in time, and they abruptly stopped when Vile shook his head and mouthed “no.” It wasn’t a cold gesture. It was endearing, a quick and easy way to say “that’s not what this song is about.” The guy in front of me said the song was beautiful. I know this because he seemed to like standing with his heels placed where my toes end, so hearing him talk was easy, but that’s neither here nor there.
During “Stand Inside,” one of the prettier Kurt Vile songs I can think of, the audience went full sap, cheering when he sang “I love you” – a seriously felt lyric, not because of the lyric itself, but because of the way it affirms the lyrics and music before it. It was towards the middle of his set. The Violators left the stage and he stood alone with his guitar. That’s my good girl, my whole world he sang, a line that’s presumably about his young daughter. And I think there’s something beautiful about the contradicted line; it’s a strange and completely understandable thing, to take pride in your child’s personality, but are you proud because she’s autonomously remarkable, or because you made her that way? A humbling, and potentially scary distinction.
On the opposite end of the Violator’s sonic and emotional spectrum was “Freak Train.” On this song, more than any other, Vile showed that he’s damn good at yelling “WOO,” like his good friend and fellow Philadelphia native Adam Granduciel. If poetry people snap, people from Philly who play rock ‘n roll yell “WOO.” “Freak Train” was the most raucous song of the set. It sounded completely off the rail, a wailing saxophone and an ocean of feedback, and it acted completely on the rail – unstoppable movement in one direction, with borderline punk drumming. An Americana circle pit.
Kurt Vile & the Violators (photo: Sophia Apt)
If you’ve heard any of his songs, you know that one of the main characters of Vile’s music is his rambling lyricism. He has a knack for squeezing lyrics where they don’t seem to fit, and something about this makes his lyricism feel completely singular and accidental. It’s like the lyrics were written the moment you hear them, every time. This effect is even more pronounced hearing him live. You’ve finally learned how to sing the part in “That’s Life tho, (almost hate to say)” where he sings, when I go out I take pills to take the edge off or to just take a chillax man forget about it, then he goes ahead and sings it live and the line sits a little differently. Vile’s audible thoughts smeared on top of pin-drop finger picking. In “Pretty Pimpin’,” the second song of the set, he walked away from the end of some lines entirely. Let the audience fill in the blanks, or not. I think these (further) lyrical liberties cement his musical looseness in an important way. If he were to sing and play the songs identical to the recordings, wouldn’t something about his unfasten-able world be undercut?
Something surprising about his stage presence: he’s very nimble. He swapped guitars after almost every song, and he’d kind of pounce out from under the strap and hand it off for a banjo, acoustic or different Fender Jaguar (he had two, depending on the tuning of the song). This isn’t particularly important, but it made me realize how much I’d curated my own Kurt Vile after listening to his music and reading about him. I thought he’d be more, uh, slow? Turns out I don’t know him too well, a completely welcome realization.
Maybe it’s because there’s a lethargy to a lot of the music. Even the harder rocking, more driving stuff sounds decidedly drunk – not sloppy, but woozy. It feels dismissive to call this Kurt Vile and the Violators’ style. It undoubtedly is, but seeing them live you get the sense it’s also more than that. You wonder if the music’s languor – I’m thinking of “Goldtone” specifically – could be some sort of preservation, fatigue or both? I imagine Kurt Vile gets called mellow a lot. Mellow people are nice to be around, but mellow is also kind of a coping mechanism, social-emotional damage control. A brick wall of cool. Kurt Vile gets described as funny, and he is. But I wonder why he’s funny. And if he is funny, why are his songs also beautiful, dark, slowed down anxiety?
During the set, someone yelled to him, “something something fucking something.” I couldn’t tell exactly what they said other than “fucking”. Immediately, without looking up from under two feet of hair Vile quipped, “someone cursin’ me?” The speed with which he responded only emphasize how un-botherable Kurt Vile seems. It’s hard to tell if the audience has any sway over his demeanor. He grinned here and there, and he said he liked us. But for the most part, he and the Violators were unstoppable for nearly two hours of music. Music loud, quiet and far away.