Granada Theater, Dallas
Saturday, April 16, 2016
Participation in the Revelation of Kurt Vile wasn't compulsory during his sold-out show at Granada Theater on Saturday night. Inviting people in wasn't really the Philadelphia native's objective. Much like his latest album, b’lieve i’m goin down, his goal seemed to be to capture the quiet vulnerability of a man with only a guitar, a couch and 3 a.m.’s stillness to keep him company. But to those willing to seek him out, Vile spoke directly.
The songs on b'lieve are night songs, and the same psychic buffer-zone which protects Vile from, say, his cellphone’s bad vibes on a song like 2013's "Wakin' on a Pretty Day" also sealed him off from his audience on Saturday. The gulf between performer and audience had a physical dimension that was evident in Vile’s curtain of brown locks; even the way two of the Violators switched back and forth between bass and guitar contributed a kind of shapeshifting inscrutability to the band’s stage presence.
Many members of the audience were not up to the work of bridging the gap. A low crowd murmur was audible throughout most of the night, and the few who moved to the music largely kept their feet planted. But even so, it was impossible to feel sorry for Vile — even as he was left alone on the stage for a hurried version of “Stand Inside,” a song with John Fahey-like fingerpicking acrobatics that pushed the mechanical limits of Vile’s right hand. Vile, for all his awkwardness, was absolutely sure of himself.
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Actually, that’s not quite true. In fact, at the end of each song, Vile shed his guitar like a bad thought, leaping out from under it as though it were a piece of falling debris — the stage equivalent of having incredibly unpleasant memory just as you’re trying to fall asleep. His very occasional song introductions were mumbled and frequently punctuated with a stutter. (“That’s right, our single,” he delivered deadpan following his performance of “Pretty Pimpin'.”)
So, no, it wasn’t really Kurt Vile himself that Kurt Vile was so sure of. Rather, it was the hard-earned wisdom that he’s embalmed in reverb — wisdom that he has acquired in spite of himself. It’s his uncertainty that he’s certain of, and that’s enough. Awkward though he may have been between songs, when he was playing, everything — including his audience — fell away. Watching Vile perform — especially the new standards from b’lieve like “Pretty Pimpin’” and “Wheelhouse” — was like peering directly into Vile’s working brain. The lyrics represented his higher-level thoughts and the guitar represented the lower level ones that never quite firm up into words, but are still just as real.
Still, there were lulls. The recorded versions of Vile songs tend to be pretty loose and baggy, which is a blessing and a curse. When it works, the effect is like a hyperbolic time chamber: ingredients enough for a three-minute song, at most, expand like magic foam grow capsules into nine-minute mammoths. This sounds like it ought to be tiresome, but the result is often less, “okay, we get it now,” and more water-into-wine miraculous. And while this remains largely true of the live iterations, oftentimes their sprawl didn’t feel as organic.
There was rarely a moment, aside from a galactic rendition of "Gold Tone," where it felt like the band was truly out on a limb. Every once in a while, like at the end of “Jesus Freak,” Vile would seem to entertain the idea of stretching out with a guitar solo, but would then abandon it. Perhaps these aborted forays were planned, but often they felt as though Vile had looked up from the couch of his mind, realized he was, in fact, playing a concert before a crowd of 1,000 people, and, ironically, decided not to burden his audience.
But maybe that’s for the best, for it was in these little moments when Vile was made aware of his audience and gave them a chance to connect with him. He allowed them just enough of a glimpse into the funhouse of his mind to see inside without catching too much of their own reflection.