“We’re precautious,” Vetiver frontman Andy Cabic announced in his velvety near-whisper from the Bowery Ballroom stage to a sparse but appreciative Sunday night crowd. No doubt most indie rockers with deep pockets were uptown at Radio City Music Hall with Bon Iver, David Byrne, and Feist for the Dark Was the Night concert. Cabic went on, detailing how the San Francisco-based band avoided both Sunday’s perpetual rainstorm and Five Boro Bike Tour traffic jams by driving into town at 4 a.m.
Such carefulness suits the anachronistic band and their bygone strengths: honeyed vocal harmonies, the chime of reverberating guitars, understated finger-picking, keening leads, unhurried snare hits, and gently-expanding crash cymbals. Vetiver would’ve thrived in the early ’70s, perhaps holding down a Fillmore West triple bill with Santana and Quicksilver Messenger Service, or backing Neil Young in-between Crazy Horse stints. In another world, they’d be getting re-packaged on a Time-Life box set alongside Bread and solo George Harrison. Cabic even looks the part tonight, clad in workman shirt, earth tone slacks, and a brown fedora.
That said, they’re also content in the 21st century, releasing deft folk-rock albums on Sub Pop like this year’s meticulously crafted Tight Knit and last year’s covers album, Thing of the Past. “Keepin’ it mellow,” Cabic murmurs midway through about the band’s M.O., right before the band dusts off “Maureen,” a nugget from 2006’s To Find Me Gone, the dual harmonies of Cabic and guitarist Sanders Trippe tucking together so intimately that couples in the crowd snuggle in closer.
Slowly, the “On the Road Again” throb of “You May Be Blue” brings out the more grooving side of the band, topped only by their hip-shaking rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Standin’.” Even between such louder songs, the band marvels at not only the crowd’s reverence for their hushed tunes, but also the warm acoustics of the Ballroom itself. Cabic eventually confesses that for Vetiver, “keepin’ it mellow” is a strategy; the band starts slow to help crowds quiet down (or at least lose the chatterers to the bar area). That explained, they dipped right back into the unhurried pace of “Down at el Rio” and its talk of bus routes that lead to a Bay Area bar with lemon trees in the backyard.