Somewhere from near the third row at The Underground in Charlotte, NC Tuesday night, a woman was yelling something toward the stage, and Kurt Vile, simultaneously tuning his guitar and shaking his hair out of his face, was just starting to notice.
“Huh?” he asked as he peered towards the mass of people, his face pinching up in question. Finally, her phrase could be heard loud and clear: “We love you, Kurt!”
“Thanks,” he grinned into the mic in a half-buzzed, ‘aw-shucks’ manner. I once described Kurt Vile’s music to a friend by saying, “picture Opie Taylor singing Neil Young covers, and you’ve basically got Kurt’s entire vibe.”
The crowd interaction was the epitome of the way I’d always pictured Kurt Vile to be during a show. He might rip it up during “KV Crimes,” or make some skateboarders cry during “Peeping Tomboy,” but he’ll also be the goofy dude with long hair, sipping a beer while shrugging and blushing at the crowd’s affirmations.
While 2012’s “Waking on a Pretty Daze” was sunny and bright, offering simple stoner advice like a high older sibling, 2015’s “b’lieve i’m goin down” was darker and existential. He wrote the songs only at night while his wife and two daughters had fallen asleep, prompting critics to refer to it as his “night album.”
The songs have the same comfortable familiarity of any Kurt Vile song, so much so that it might take you a minute to realize that his typically quick witted lyrics have taken a much darker turn, ranging from topics like anxiety meds to a full fledged identity crisis.
It’s been a minute since we’ve heard anything from Kurt — aside from his 2017 collaboration with Courtney Barnett and The Sea Lice — but around April of this year it became clear that something was in the works. Matador Records, Kurt’s label, posted pictures of campaign yard signs reading “VILE ’18.” My own local record store offered free bumper stickers of the same campaign; I took five just for good measure. Throw in a 2018 tour with The Violators, and it’s hard not to think that something’s gotta be going on in Vile-Land.
My friend and I arrived at The Underground as early as you could be for a concert while still being socially acceptable; since doors opened at 7, we started walking towards the venue at around 6:50. X’s marked in king size Sharpie on our hands, we trudged our way to the stage to find that we’d been beaten out for front row spots by a group of kids who also sported similar X’s.
When the opening act Dylan Carlson — who I found out via Google search is the only constant member of the doom drone group Earth — took the stage, my friend leaned over and joked, “Kurt’s not looking too hot these days.” Carlson’s appearance (greying beard, long hair, facial tattoos, and a cowboy hat) gave the impression of someone that might do some sort of rock and roll fueled country…but we ended up settling for distorted, droning guitar solos instead.
When The Violators emerged, each with a cup of beer in one hand and a guitar in the other, I glanced around the room. There only appeared to be about 300 people in the 750-capacity venue, and I started to feel especially disappointed in the turnout, but looking back I’m stoked that I got to witness Kurt and the Violators in such an intimate setting.
A drum machine provided the constant background noise for almost the entire set, apart from acoustic tunes like “Peeping Tom,” so it was almost too easy to guess which song would be coming up next based on the beat alone. Kurt kept his face shrouded by his hair whenever he wasn’t at the microphone, his mannerisms not too far off from someone who’s hungover or stoned, but he kept his embezzlements of rock, bluegrass, and folk constantly interesting.
He switched guitars for almost every single song, even picking up the banjo on “I’m an Outlaw.” His guitar rig is more than impressive, despite the simplistic tone of his songs; known for his affinity for vintage Fender gear, his use of various pedals was really astounding to witness live, as he employed everything from a wah-wah pedal to what sounded like a phaser.
“Girl Called Alex,” normally an acoustic and yearning ballad, was turned into a rock jam thanks to the driving drums of Kyle Spence and the guitar riffs of Rob Lasko, and “Goldtone” had a similar setup. Jesse Trbovich switched off between bass and guitar, even picking up the saxophone on “Freak Train.”
“Dust Bunnies” was drawn out with great solos on Kurt’s part, with Lasko’s organ providing a good buffer to the heavy distortion. When he announced hits like “Pretty Pimpin’” and “Waking on a Pretty Day,” and the entire crowd started cheering in recognition, Kurt would beam sheepishly. The energy was constantly passing back and forth between the smaller-than-he-was-probably-used-to crowd and the band, keeping almost constant good vibes throughout the whole show.
“Play ‘Air Bud!’” the only heckler of the show yelled.
“I wish, man,” Kurt responded, grinning widely.
When The Violators came back for an encore, Kurt said in a happy-go-lucky voice, “You guys have been beautiful, we’re gonna do a couple more songs.”
As always, the crowd cheered him on.
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