Like many successful songwriters, Kurt Vile started out his music career with a project that sounds different enough from his current musical muse to warrant the switch but close enough that his contributions are obvious. As one of the founders of the War On Drugs, his influence is apparent with each busy, washed out guitar riff from the band’s debut album, 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues. But even as Vile’s signature sound has carried over to the newest album, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, which he recorded with his band the Violators, the artist has further expanded his spacey sound to far-reaching new heights. While the reaction from the near-capacity crowd of mostly middle-aged looking men that filled the Grog Shop last night wavered throughout Vile’s latest stop in Cleveland, he still put on a cosmic, subdued show.
After taking the stage and hollering an emphatic “Yo” to the crowd — which he would repeat four or so times without saying much else — Vile and the Violators immediately dove into their biggest hit with “Wakin on a Pretty Day,” eliciting a crowd reaction that wouldn’t be met until after the band had left the stage. The reason for lack of a reaction from those that had paid close to $20 to catch the act is hard to decode; most seemed enthralled, even throughout the longest songs — many of which lasted at least five minutes, though the aforementioned opener and “Was All Talk” came closer to ten. His soloing virtuosity was on full display and a spot-on reminder of why it is that some have flirted with tossing his name around with some of the greatest American songwriters; his sound — at least vocally — often comes particularly close to that of Tom Petty, one of Vile’s influences. The 14-song, hour and a half set reached its climax in its closing number, “Freak Train,” as Vile howled the words to one of his oldest songs with a feverish attitude that matched that of his bass-player-turned-saxophonist, who soloed throughout.
Music categorized as “shoegazing” is typically classified as such because of the way that the vocals are buried and blended in the mix with the great mass of sound that the rest of the band generates. On a recording, the dreamy pop style can sound great, but as was evident with the opening set by the Swirlies last night, it can make for a confusing live performance if any part of this formula is off. The quartet kicked off the night with “Bell,” a track from 2006’s Blonder Tongue Audio Baton that would have sounded great if it had sounded nearly as balanced as its recorded version made it out to be. Instead, the voices of the lead singers were completely lost in the mix and nearly inaudible; whether the band or Grog’s sound guy is at fault for this is hard to say, but the bemused looks on the faces of those in the crowd suggests that the issue wasn’t lost on them, either. Looking more and more detached from the performance as they trudged through an 8-song, 45-minute set that included songs like “In Harmony New Found Freedom” and “San Cristobal De Las Casas,” the highlight of this set came after the band had said goodnight and was immediately heckled with a “Who the FUCK are you?” from a female audience member. While the band surely showed, through parts of various songs, what has made them a favorite among certain circles in the indie community, it’s doubtful that this particular show had really peaked her interest enough to delve too deeply into the band’s catalogue upon returning home.