Words: Sean Moore/ Photos: Derrick Rossignol
Kurt Vile is a man of few words when he is performing on stage. Instead, he let his music speak for itself. He knows what he’s there to do. His job is to melt faces with his sonic rock tunes. When he started out, Vile’s sound focused more on the lo-fi, home-recording style. Over the years, perhaps thanks to his signing with Matador Records, his sound has become more expansive and amplified, especially at his live shows.
Vile hasn’t played Portland, Maine since 2014, when he shared the stage with Jenny Lewis. He has put out a couple records since then, as well as a collaboration with Courtney Barnett. Vile has been honing his skills and playing with such a diverse group of musicians that can be heard on his records and on stage. In fact, his influences bleed through during many of his guitar-heavy solos that bring to mind bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and even Neil Young. The audience can almost feel like they are witnessing a Neil Young and Crazy Horse show in the way Vile and his band, The Violators, a semi-revolving group of musicians that seems a bit more permanent in its lineup these days, stretch out songs like “Bassackwards,” the third song in the set, which goes on for about ten minutes. It’s also quite clear that Vile has not just been good friends with The War on Drugs’ mastermind, Adam Granduciel, but also a student to his craft of songwriting when you hear Vile perform. The two played together, with Vile in TWOD (before focusing on his own project), and Granduciel as a member of The Violators (until about 2011).
Kurt Vile and the Violators have been touring all year in support of Bottle It In, which came out in late-2018, so his hour and a half set included 5 songs from the album, including the opening song on the album, “Loading Zones” which set the tone for the night. Kurt Vile was going to rock out and the Portland crowd was going to be thankful for it. “Jesus Fever” (from his incredible Smoke Ring for My Halo) was a tune that he and the band jammed out to, whereas “I’m an Outlaw” had Vile playing the banjo and howling to accentuate the end of the chorus. One of the highlights of the night came with the back-to-back jams of “Check Baby” and “Girl Called Alex,” which played consecutively took about 15 minutes in the set. When it came time to slow things down a bit, the band left Kurt Vile alone on stage and he played “Runner Ups” on acoustic guitar. When the band returned, it was almost as if that brief 4 minute breather was all they needed to turn it way up, because the intensity of “Yeah Bones” and “Wakin’ on a Pretty Day” pleased the crowd immensely. A couple of guys in the crowd were dancing by themselves the entire night, in vastly different ways, but equally enjoying every minute of the show. Everyone else, in the very diverse crowd of young and old, was moving their bodies in swaying motions and/or rocking back and forth in appreciation for the music.
Kurt Vile’s stage presence reminds me of Granduciel and Kurt Cobain’s, in the way they sort of stand, hunched over the microphone, singing with intentional simplicity and almost minimal effort. Vile simply stands behind his microphone and barely opens his mouth to sing his lyrics, choosing specific moments to yelp, howl, and straight up scream during his songs to really drive the point home that the crowd is at his rock show. When he screamed, the crowd screamed in response. They cheered and applauded during the extended guitar solos, especially for the ones heard during “Check Baby” and “Yeah Bones,” both incredible rock songs that sound even better in the live interpretations, the latter of the two, Vile was playing a 12-string guitar in such a masterful way that was impressive to everyone in the building and seemed so easy for him. For the most part, Vile’s long, curly hair obscures his face, unless he makes a point to brush it away or shake his head along to the music. Even during his guitar solos, Vile doesn’t find it necessary to showboat his talent, choosing instead to simply step away from the mic and look out into the crowd. There were no anecdotal stories told between songs. Vile simply thanked the crowd a few times and wiped his brow before breaking into another song. He introduced a few songs by stating the title, perhaps to prepare the crowd, but it seemed like none of his songs needed an introduction.
The night ended with a three song encore which included “Pretty Pimpin,” a crowd favorite. But for this writer, the highlight was the final song, for sure. Vile and the band played an incredibly loud and raucous version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Downbound Train” that Kurt Vile and the Violators made their own, in such a way that seemed like equal parts an appreciation and an invitation to turn the song into an updated rock and roll version that Springsteen would probably appreciate. The crowd was satisfied with how they’d chosen to spend their Saturday night, faces sufficiently melted and not just from the intense heat of the building, but from Kurt Vile’s amazing set where each member left everything on that stage.