Kurt Vile is a golden god. We already knew he was a king, at least, but once he took the Bowery Ballroom stage last night in head-to-toe white denim as Violator Jesse Trbovich triumphantly pumped his guitar in the air, it was an absolute. The venue’s house music swelled, like the school band playing as their star football players run onto the field, as the band took its position in front of a giant Kurt Vile and the Violators banner. The illusion shifted a little, not when Vile took off his jacket to reveal a totally rock star leopard-print lining, but when he actually tried to take it off. In one of the musician’s many endearingly awkward moments onstage, he struggled to shrug his arms out of the sleeves as his guitar man waited patiently, holding one of Vile’s six guitars.
Like any genius, musical or otherwise, there were times last night when Vile seemed to exist in his own world. After about five songs, he suddenly dropped his guitar and ran offstage with no warning or explanation (“Bathroom break,” someone in the audience said). He even took a very long 30 seconds to check his iPhone while the rest of his bandmates were setting up, leaving his guitar man hanging yet again. But those moments revealed the human behind the hero, the husband and father of two who goes to band practice only after his kids are in bed.
One of the last times Vile brought his third full-length and magnum opus Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze to New York, it was an acoustic performance for a select few at Electric Lady Studios. This time, obviously, he brought the Violators and some friends to warm up the audience. One of the two openers, the Missouri-born singer and guitarist Angel Olsen, provided a mesmerizing foil to Vile’s full-band squalls with just an accompanying cellist. Olsen has an almost unbelievable range, warbling low in the throat like Patsy Cline one minute and sweeping into the wispy upper ranges of Laura Veirs the next. Then there was her stage banter: “Well, goddamn, where’s my juice?” she asked, looking for her beer. “Y’all got your juice?” she asked the audience, clinking drinks with her cellist.
As the crowd swelled for Kurt Vile, so did the background chatter, which became painfully obvious during Olsen’s quiet verses. Only Vile’s understated yet loud stage presence could quiet the crowd. He started late because all those damn pedal boards take a while to set up, but it was worth it. The sound was impeccable. For the first few songs–including “Wakin’ On A Pretty Day”, the most perfect nine-minute song that ever was–his voice was a bit too low in the mix, but the sound engineers brought up the volume soon enough. Though Vile has undoubtedly developed as an artist from the tape recordings of 2008’s Constant Hitmaker to the master strokes of Wakin’, his music is so timeless that the gentle click track behind “Baby’s Arms” sounded as fully realized and relevant as the drums on the preceding saxophone-blasted mindfuck “Freak Train”.
Audience members seemed to respond the most when the Violators left Vile in a stage-lit halo with just an acoustic guitar for “Peeping Tomboy.” “I don’t want to change, but I don’t want to stay the same,” Vile sang, delicately finger-picking his way around the issue. “I don’t want to get a job, but I don’t want to sit around.” Amen, underemployed 25-to-34-year-olds in the audience. One girl’s face in the audience was immaculately streaked with tears, her black eyeliner still intact. For a second it seemed like Vile was reaching her on a more profound level than the rest of us, but then I remembered the two bald guys next to me grinning like idiots as they tapped out “Jesus Fever” on the monitors in front of them. That’s the beauty of Kurt Vile.
Critical Bias: None. Kurt Vile is inarguably an extraordinarily talented songwriter.
Random Notebook Dump: But I was surprised he could pull off white jeans.
Overheard: The guy next to me told his friend that he was taking the bus to Boston tomorrow to see Vile again. “That’s hardcore,” his friend responded.
Wakin’ On a Pretty Day
Was All Talk
Girl Called Alex
Snowflakes Are Dancing