Kurt Vile at Bowery Ballroom, 6/11/11

On Saturday, June 11, a sold-out Bowery Ballroom hosted indie’s current champion of guitar rock, Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile.

Vile’s most recent album, Smoke Ring for my Halo, should place on a lot of year-end lists, and it currently tops mine.  On Smoke Ring, Vile transcends his previous branding as a kinda-weird-classic-rock-revivalist and emerges as one of this era’s foremost songwriters.  His lyrics are as strange and evocative as Dylan’s and Tweedy’s in their primes, his melodies as anthemic as Springsteen’s, his composure as unique as Young’s.  The album itself is about as well-produced as a rock album can be; an unclear number of guitars in varying pools of reverb create swirling atmospheres of the axe behind Vile’s distinctive grumble.  This kind of sleek production often leads to a downfall in the live setting – multitracking and quality reverb are luxuries reserved for the studio.

However, after the first song of the night – “Society is My Friend” – it was clear that the masterful soundscapes of Smoke Ring were indeed to be recreated faithfully and creatively live.  The Violators fluctuated between four and five members and sported an array of electric and acoustic guitars in combination.  These often included baritone guitars and a Fender VI 6 String bass, which probably fattened the low-to-mid-range more than a traditional two-guitar + bass rock band set-up would have.  The results were extraordinary.  The Ballroom’s renowned acoustics supported The Violators’ wide-range wall of guitar, anchored by hi-hat-less and tom-heavy drumming, and topped by Vile’s buzzing shriek.  It sounded like a band in perfect harmony with each other, with the venue, and with the songs themselves.

Vile couldn’t hold back a grin upon viewing the crowd’s response to Smoke Ring standout “Jesus Fever”.  Vile has been releasing music for about a decade now, but his stock has never risen as quickly as it has since the release of Smoke Ring – here was a slip in the stoic-rocker stage persona he puts on, as he paused perhaps to recognize the acclaim that has been sent his way in 2011.    The audience returned the favor, showering the 31-year-old singer with heckles of appreciation throughout the night.  Several members of the Violators exited the stage when Vile played the by-now-a-classic “Freeway” off of 2008’s Constant Hitmaker, a remnant of his cruder arrangements only three years removed.  The song pays heed to Big Rock tropes from which reactionaries like Kings of Leon feed, but with the help of a drum machine and a synth, it sheds the framework of a traditional rock song and takes a simple chord pattern to new, weirder heights.

photo by Shawn Brackbill

That’s not to say Vile isn’t a rock star of sorts. The band consists of five jeans-clad men each with hair past their shoulders.    I don’t know what they do backstage, but on stage The Violators consistently exuded arena rock vibes.  Vile doesn’t yet boast 20 roadies to his tour caravan, but the show still opened with a Great Roadie Rock Moment.  A man with very long hair, wearing blue jeans and a loose t-shirt – later known to be Vile’s rhythm guitarist – kneeled over his pedalboard, frantically checking knobs and wires and pacing back to his amp.  Other band members stood worriedly beside him, signaling for the help of other sound technicians.  Fifteen minutes later, he managed to play a clear chord out of his amplifier to the glee and cheer of the crowd.  Classic Rock Moment.  (During the show this same guy would fist pump enthusiastically at the crowd after every song completed.)

This is probably one of Vile’s last shows at a small venue like Bowery Ballroom – Vile has came of age remarkably in the few years he’s produced solo records, and this sold-out show represented a victory lap for the songwriter.  Vile noted between songs that over a year ago, he played at Bowery Ballroom in support of alt-rock stalwarts Dinosaur Jr.  This time around, Vile headlined and sold out (quite quickly, I might add) one of New York’s most famous rock clubs.

Vile’s set lasted almost an hour and a half – allegedly the longest set of his career.  He doesn’t yet boast a 2-hour-plus marathon set of his predecessors, but he’s getting there.

***

Nathan Albert
Columbia College ’13

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