Kurt Vile at the Bluebird, 8/15/13
KURT VILE @ BLUEBIRD THEATER | 8/15/13
Kurt Vile strolled into the Bluebird last night carrying a stack of his CDs. He's a small man, maybe 5' 3" and weighing 130, with shaggy brown hair. Looked awkward. Very awkward. Was he about to steal my wife's heart with his songs, as she and I had both expected? The answer was a resounding "no." What he did instead was play some stoner folk music at earsplitting volumes that made my brains want to ooze from all my orifices.
Oh, but the expectations heading into this show were so high. How could they not be? Vile's mumble-singing through songs like "Space Forklift" and "Freak Train" make him a lo-fi demigod. The man turns narcoleptic three-chord melodies into something like magic, kicking Galaxie 500's ghost in the shin while bringing some sorely needed humility to the world of male pop singers.
Which makes this next sentence so hard to write: The show kind of sucked. Put less gently, it wasn't worth taking the bus halfway across town to see. To his credit, Vile and his band, the aptly named Violators, knew to put his best-known work first. "Jesus Fever," the proto-hit from 2011's Smoke Ring for My Halo, led off the set. Here was an instantly agreeable, midtempo jam. Super. Problem was, though, that the breezy vibe that made the album a summertime staple in every self-respecting hipster's Subaru was simply not there. There were too many guitars, too much reverby amplified noise, not enough soul.
Following that came "Wakin on a Pretty Day," the first single from his new album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. Yet again: rambling lyrics that balance between sarcastic and sincere (a hallmark of Vile's songwriting), buoyed by chords that are perfect for being so simple. And then... Vile sings, ruining the magic by sounding like he's trying to climb over the instruments so that he can hear himself. Dude sounded like he was struggling to make himself heard.
The rest of the set showed a few moments of promise. "Ghost Town" was a highlight of the show. Vile began screaming, maybe out of passion or frustration or because, fuck it, he's a rock star, and the vibe in both the audience and onstage got a little more energized accordingly. Same thing with "Hunchback," a track from his lesser-known 2009 album Childish Prodigy (by far his best effort).
On both songs, for a few moments anyway, Vile seemed to forget where he was. Maybe it was all nerves. Vile does not fit the traditionally charismatic, Bowie-esque mold. If anything, playing live fits Vile pretty poorly. It's easy to forget that your favorite singer may not like leaving his bedroom studio. Vile's singing style is so intimate that any venue larger than, say, a garage could feel pretty quickly like it was too impersonal.
The set ended with a study in contrasts: At one end of the spectrum: "Freak Train," a hopped-up assault of a song that had Vile struggling to keep up with his backing musicians, and the encores "Baby's Arms" and "Snowflakes are Dancing." On the latter tune, Vile sang words like "There's been but one true love/In my baby's arms," standing alone onstage with an acoustic guitar. He seemed to operate in these two extremes throughout the show, for a few seconds breathlessly screaming into the mic, and then, without warning, effectively whispering to the audience.
Personal Bias: Having loved everything Vile and his sister act the War on Drugs have ever done, expectations for this show were pretty damn high.
Random Note: Kurt Vile and the Violators' opening act was called Sonny and the Sunsets. There should be a limit to how many alliterative groups share a stage in one night.
By the Way: Vile, in one of his only moments of between-song banter, said that this was his first-ever Colorado show. Come back anytime, Kurt. We know you'll do better.