The songs of Philadelphia native Kurt Vile, to me, are sagas of normality. I don’t mean that these songs are ordinary, far from it. They are epic, meandering tales of down to earth feelings and problems for a singer, musician, rock star – whatever Kurt Vile perceives himself to be. They speak of the pressures and burdens of being on the road; they bemoan the fact that he has to explain that he doesn’t smoke much weed or party too hard because he’s a husband and a father now; they parody the music snobbery regarding selling out; they deal with what it’s like to go from hard working artist, constantly brow-beaten by others who believe he won’t make it, only to achieve fame and a following and be confronted with the problems that brings. Ever since I heard that tempo change at around 4:27 in “Wakin’ on a Pretty Day” months ago, I have felt an attachment to these songs, not necessarily because I can emotionally relate to the subject of every track – I am not a musician, a rock star or famous (though there is a subtle, beneath the surface sense of relation) – but because of the honesty in his intentions and the conviction in the meaning of his words, despite his lackadaisical voice.
So there I was, standing under the viaduct to a train station about to hear these songs, that now feel so close and dear to me, for the first time live with a certain amount of trepidation. As Kurt and his Violators approached the stage, I was overcome with dread at an impending disappointment.
They careered into the opening chords of the pseudo-title track of his most recent album and when the aforementioned tempo shift came I felt a whole new surge of happiness, closeness and admiration for this music. To call this gig a resounding success would be an injustice. The way Kurt Vile and his band managed to transcribe his sprawling, sophisticated mastery of the power of repeated sounds on “Goldtone” was a wonder. This isn’t music that immediately screams “Dance!” or “Jump around!” Instead I was transfixed, hypnotised by the sound.
The overall quality of his and his band’s instrumental prowess shone, and then there’s his voice. On record it sounds hazy but not lazy, confident but not cocksure. On stage, Kurt commanded attention but without losing that special something, a druggy drawl without the narcotics. On “Girl Called Alex” there is a moment when, out of a sea of deep, reverberating guitar picks, there is an almighty crash of electric strings. On record this has power, but that night the Violators violated the brick uprights of these tunnels with a wall of sound that Kevin Shields would be proud of, vibrating the floor and shaking the amps.
For two tracks Kurt was left alone, lit by a solitary spotlight to perform the lovely “Peeping Tomboy” from Smoke Ring for My Halo and “Feel My Pain”, a cut from the deluxe reissue of Wakin on a Pretty Daze (actually a kind of reworked version of album track “Pure Pain”). It is rare to see such a talented guitarist who can not only play – and play so well and intricately that it was actually entertaining simply to watch him do it – but also write good songs. Often guitarists can become self-involved and only too aware of their own skill and just stand there and noodle around on the strings. Kurt stood there and finger picked beautifully but had the words to back it up: “I wanna change but I don’t wanna stay the same, I wanna go but I’m running. I wanna work but I don’t wanna sit around, all day frowning.” He played there on his own for what seemed like an eternity, and if only it had been.
The highlight of the night was the rendition of “Was All Talk”, an ambiguous musing on leaving behind a former life of seeming normality to walk through this one he now leads. Backed by an odd drum machine programming that sounds like rocks and water droplets hitting the ground in an echoey cavern, he pleads to take a look at his hands as the audience gaze on in a trance like state as the sounds filled the arches of the bridge above. It is hard to describe exactly what made it so memorable – it drew me in, I couldn’t take my eyes away from the stage but I was focused on the sound swirling around me. It struck me how much noise he and his bandmates could make with mostly acoustic guitar led songs.
Finally, they left us in a blaze of coloured lights and brass. A saxophone was brought out for the maniacal “Freak Train” from his third album Childish Prodigy. It was a sight and sound to behold. The music crescendoed into a cacophony that seemed to pummel me into submission – not one where I begged for its end, but for it never to end. It was like the scene in the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory where they sail the boat on the chocolate river and they seem subsumed in a psychedelic rainbow of insane noises. There at The Arches, the hooting of the sax coupled with the lights and then the vanishing of Kurt Vile – a man who I found so familiar now finally cloaking himself in some mystery with this mad finale – stayed with me into the night, just like that scene.
I tweeted recently that, despite the reaction of others, I had no regrets about naming Wakin on a Pretty Daze as the best album of 2013. I decided before that gig that it was, I was convinced at that gig that it was, I was stoic beyond the gig, and I stick with my decision now. Kurt Vile’s live show is a different animal, but it is no less impressive.
Photo: Alissa Anderson