Friday, February 8, 2013

Gig: Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile (Woods / Arc in Round)

Lee's Palace. Wednesday, July 13, 2011.

Early openers Arc in Round were a total mystery to me, but it turned out they not only shared Philadelphia roots with the night's headliner, but frontman/guitarist Jeff Zeigler (in a Swans t-shirt) has produced a couple of Kurt Vile's albums as well. Here, the quartet were playing some songs from their second EP (reasonably titled II), as well as its earlier counterpart Diagonal Fields. The opening number was a slow-building and spacey instrumental, and some of those elements were present in the songs that followed, although they were more tethered to the unforced vocals.

The most interesting elements might have been provided by keyboardist Mikele Edwards, who added some nice sonic textures as well as lead vocals on "Spirit" that hinted at a friskier Beach House. A sample of their recorded material (with many of these songs making a reappearance on the band's self-titled full-length) definitely showed a confidence with the studio — an assuredness that wasn't yet replicated on the stage. With more cool detachment than hands-on passion, there was plenty of time spent looking down at instruments and not much effort expended on engaging the crowd while tuning between songs. Closer "Hallowed" didn't quite orchestrate a big rock ending, with the set sort of petering out at its end, but on the whole this was tasty stuff.

Listen to a track from this set here.

As I surveyed the stage set-up between sets, I noted a little fragment of cassette tape caught against the top of the stage, and briefly considered lifting it to serve as the kernel of my own Woods cover band. That would have been a discard from tape-manipulator G. Lucas Crane who was, quite literally, moving up in the world: he now had his gear on a stand and a little stool to sit on, meaning he was no longer rendered all-but-invisible to most of the crowd while sitting on the floor as he had in the past. Lighting some incense as the other members of Woods took the stage, his role is to supply some whooshing disorientation under the music as well as distorted backing vocals.

Also movin' on up was singer/guitarist Jeremy Earl, who was looking a little tidier than previously with a freshly-trimmed beard that gave him a look more like an MIT student than a member of a hippy commune. The band actually played with a modified lineup for the first few songs with local hero Matt "Doc" Dunn sitting in on drums for a couple songs, starting with Sun and Shade's lead-off track "Pushing Onlys".1 They chased that with At Echo Lake's "Suffering Season", which sounds like a melodic extension of their previous cover of Graham Nash's "Military Madness".

Every time I've seen the ever-prolific band touring a new album, they were already playing songs from the next one, and this would be no exception, with "Bend Beyond" (which would become the title track of the their 2012 album) getting a fine airing, tasty Crazy Horse guitar breakdown included.2 After that, they showcased their quiet, more introspective side with the back-to-back-to-back run of "Rain On", "Be All Be Easy" and "Say Goodbye" — lovely songs all, though it did lose the audience somewhat, with some folks starting up conversations and more using this as the time to hit the bar.

After the similarly quiet "Get Back", I was hoping the band would tackle their unexpectedly Faust-y "Out of the Eye", but instead the set closed with a long, jammy version of "I Was Gone" — a concise tune that's under two minutes on record, but here using that structure as the starting point for a ten-minute excursion, stretching out into a bit of widdly-wah noodling. It was a very fine set, but the fifty minutes were gone in a blink.

Listen to a couple tracks from this set here.

That was really what I had come to see, so as the crowd surged in even tighter for headliner Kurt Vile, I was prepared to relinquish my spot up front for a bit more elbow room. I'd liked a few of the songs that I had originally been exposed to, but I'd merely been semi-impressed the previous time I'd seen him. Mind you, what I'd heard of his then-new Smoke Ring For My Halo convinced me I should keep paying attention, so I didn't move too far back.

This tour brought a different band alignment on stage, without the mostly-superfluous harp they'd sported before. As the set began, Vile (in a Deerhunter t-shirt) was playing a 12-string acoustic for "Overnight Religion" (from his '09 breakthrough album Childish Prodigy) before moving to his six-string for the new album's "On Tour", delivered with a laconic delivery that recalled J Mascis.

A lot of the unrushed songs settled in at around the five-minute mark, though there were a few quicker ones, like the rather-compelling "Jesus Fever". Vile was not much for banter — and he might have benefited from a guitar tech, with a couple bursts of tuning ushering in prolonged between-song silences.

It was a surprisingly devoted and attentive crowd, and amongst his few remarks, Vile commented on the "beautiful audience". That held up even after "Ghost Town" built up into an extended solo and ushered in a quieter mid-set stretch with "Baby's Arms" and "In My Time". The tasty, sardonic "Society is My Friend" took things back up for the set's last segment, which also included the monochromatic driving drum machine beat of "Freak Train" (dedicated to Sandy and Damian from Fucked Up), which ended with a slightly spazzy saxophone solo before the main set ended with "Smoke Ring For My Halo".

After that, the encore seemed pretty much assured, given that the drummer didn't bother getting up from his kit. But it turned out to be a sedate closing, with the mellow "Runner Ups" and Vile's solo turn on "Peeping Tomboy" finishing things off.

This was a much-cleaner sounding set than that Great Hall experience, which certainly made it far more appealing. As someone casually interested in Vile's work, this didn't tip me into active fandom, but once again, it did enough that I'll keep my ears open for whatever he does next.

Listen to a couple tracks from this set here.

1 "I'm pushing onlys / To waste the years away / In tattered clothes, in these same tattered clothes / That I pushed through yesterday." I mean, tell me about it.

2 There'd also be a sped-up version of that album's "Find Them Empty", stripped of the keyboards that would later adorn the recorded track.

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