Kurt Vile

The run up to The National’s ATP festival has caused a mass influx of American Indie Rock bands with Folk leanings to the UK this week, and this ATP promoted Kurt Vile show seemed designed to give three of those bands something to do before they make the drive to Camber Sands. It also gave the non-attendees a chance to see three of the festivals best.

First opening act Dark Dark Dark play a set of material from their great new album Who Needs Who. Like the album, their live sound is a jazzy-piano heavy breed of Folk Rock. Which features an accordion, some brass, and a atypical bass-drumless drum setup. Vocalist Nona Marie Invie’s performed all but one song seated behind the keyboard, and her rich affective voice blossomed during “It’s a Secret” and “Meet in the Dark”. It’s great and mellow enough that even the light mumble of audience conversation doesn’t detract from their great set.

Baltimore’s Lower Dens politely announce that they’re ready as they begin a slow and gorgeous set of their ‘Alternative’ music, in the hard to properly define sense of the world. They’ve been labelled with genres as varied as Dream Pop and Post Punk, but their sound is both too dark and too majestic to fit comfortably within either. Their excellent 2012 release Nootropics is proof that it’s music that requires patience. They use stiff drum beats and synth to play their wistful and illusory music within a traditional band structure. Serene opener “I Get Nervous”, from their debut album Twin-Hand Movement, shows off Jana Hunter’s and Geoff Graham’s off kilter harmonies, and the unnerving and nebulous beauty in Hunter’s voice emerges during “Propagation”. The more bass heavy “Brains” and “Stem” are almost proggy as the band descends from the soundscape for something more straightforward. Their fantastic set trails of more than it concludes, but even those who weren’t won over could feel their dark music lingering in the air as they left the stage.

It’s been almost 2 years since the release of Smoke Ring for My Halo, Kurt Vile’s breakout album from early 2011. Outside of a few live shows, it’s been a low key year for Vile. This is perfectly inline with his apathetic lyrics (“Think I’ll never leave my couch again”), but in reality it’s probably because he just has a second child with his wife, and is recording a new album. Somewhere during his time off Vile became an incredible guitar player, he was always good but at this gig his playing is pretty much the whole show. His guitar was deafening in his central monitors during opener “Hunchback”, and the tone sounded incredible all night. Ranging from his chunky, purring, folk guitar drawl to his excellent acoustic fingerpicking. He spent the majority of the set bent forward, his long hair draped only inches from the necks of his multiple Fender Jaguars, as he unleashed and lost himself in long guitar jams.

“Got no room for those two minute pop songs anymore”, he says after the light and poppy “Freeway”. A statement he proves with mammoth and grungey version of “Society Is My Friend”. The lengthy laid back guitar jams are far more to Vile’s speed now than the playful “Freeway”, the song’s yippy vocals sounded great, but out of place even on Constant Hitmaker. His Crazy Horse equivalent, The Violators, leave him alone with his acoustic guitar for several songs, allowing him to temporarily embody a solo Americana folk figure. He knows to pull back the volume for the magical fingerpicking of “Peeping Tomboy”, making it a stunning highlight.

Vile can be casual and laid back with his singing style to a fault, he sometimes sings his lyrics out of time. Some members of the crowd hushly mumbled along with him during “Baby’s Arms” and “Peeping Tomboy”, and his messy vocal style may have held them back from being great sing alongs. It’s customary to his lovably lazy stoner rock persona, as he is singing with as much energy as his lyrics are conveying, but it’s also an obvious weak point that he lets his masterful guitar work make up for. His stage banter is just as incoherent, but it’s sparse and saved mainly for one word thank you’s and song dedications to unknown people like “Stephanie”, who probably struggled to comprehend that the dedication was intended for them. “We’ve got to catch a plane to ATP” he said before a pre-encore version of title track “Smoke Ring for My Halo”. Spoken in a way that left no one quite sure whether he was joking or not, as they tried to remember if Camber Sands is actually far enough away from London for that to really be his method of travel.

His guitar sound continued to be the best thing about the show, as well as being its biggest problem. Its force was awe inspiring, but became a problem for the non-drummer Violators. Their rhythmic licks and other contributions to the folk guitar wall were near impossible to pick out as Vile dominated within it. It made his fantastically name backing band seem almost pointless. It was hard to tell if he played any new songs or not (he didn’t(?)). But it almost doesn’t matter what songs he played, it was a thrill just to watch his guitar playing weave through multiple styles and tempos. His songs have always been more about mood and tone than they are about hooks.

An encore of “Freak Train” appropriately featured a spaced out pedal mashing distortion freak out that destroyed its sampled beats with otherworldly guitar shrieks. Vile closed with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. With an arrangement indebted to the Gun N’ Roses version, but Vile’s voice returned it to its mumbling Bob Dylan origins. He isn’t the most adept frontman, and he is clearly more Dylan than he is Axl. But he seems to have no patience for that sort of thing, and is at his most comfortable when shrouded in his exhilarating guitar tone.

4/5

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