Posted by Christopher Cruddace.
Reviewed on 19th November 2015.
Live at Stylus on Tuesday, 17th November 2015
A couple of friends and myself had the privilege of travelling to Leeds on Tuesday the 17th November to see the enigmatic Kurt Vile and his backing band, The Violators in concert at Leeds University Student Union. Kurt Vile is a Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer, who's most recent albums have received public and critical acclaim for their distinct, reverb-soaked sound, quirky lyrics and laid back vocal delivery. What I tend to find is that, especially on his newest album, b'lieve i'm goin down..., Kurt writes lyrics in a "stream-of-consciousness" manner, singing whatever came into his head at the time of writing, often leading to some organic, funny lyrics and strange wordplay. With this in mind, I headed to the venue, anticipating an event that would be nothing if not chilled out.
The first thing you notice about the concert area of the Student Union is the multiple levels upon which people can stand. Whilst the lowest level contains the main (fairly small) standing area in front of the stage, the surrounding bar areas allow for patrons to stand around the bar whilst still having a decent view of the show. I actually prefer this kind of set up to something like the O2 Academy in Newcastle, where in order to go to the loo or get a drink you have to wade through one large mass of people, whilst at this venue there are stairs conveniently placed next to the toilets and bars for easy access. At the time I entered the newly arranged support act, Lushes, had begun their set (original supporting act Waxahatchee has taken ill and cancelled her European dates). Whilst I admire them for stepping up to the plate and performing a longer set than anticipated, this is not a band I shall be revisiting; they were, quite frankly, fairly awful. The drums were pretty sharp but the guitarist kept blasting out the same 3 chords over and over again with some awful distortion, and wailed horribly down a drowned-out microphone. I certainly won't be re-listening to this particular duo again.
However, the object of the evening was not to see Lushes, but to see Mr. Vile, so my anticipation had not subsided by the time he took to the stage. A man of few but well-meant words, he began almost immediately with a number off his newest album, "I'm an Outlaw". The tune's catchy banjo riff and memorable lyrical hook got the crowd going and set the tone for what turned out to be an excellent performance by Vile and his backing group. Following the opener was the groove-heavy "Dust Bunnies", a delightfully quotable song describing the effects of a hangover which many patrons of this performance will surely be able to relate to come the morning of the 18th. This song is also taken from his newest album, as was the next song on the setlist, the album's lead single "Pretty Pimpin'", a tune describing a man suffering from an existential crisis. Vile drawled languidly throughout in true Kurt Vile fashion, growling as the beat became louder and the instrumentation grew around him, singing such memorable lines as, "I woke up this mornin', didn't recognise the man in the mirror." Following this was the reverb-drenched, psychedelic-tinted, summers-day anthem "Wakin' on a Pretty Day", the title track from his 2013 album and a personal favourite of mine from Vile's 6-album catalogue. It was at this point where Vile showed his impressive skill on guitar; the 9-minute epic required precision and skill, which Vile displayed with aplomb. Following this was the bombastic and catchy "KV Crimes" and the softer, more elegant "Wheelhouse".
Following this, Vile and his band played multiple numbers from his older albums, pulling out gems such as "Jesus Fever" with its multi-layered guitars and upbeat rhythm. Vile did not distort his vocals on this track, giving new life to a track where the album version features layered, distorted vocals from the laid-back frontman. This seemed to be a feature of the live performances by the band, stripping back much of the reverb from songs, producing a more upbeat, organic sound. This was a refreshing change and only added to the credentials of the performance. Vile continued with the theme of playing some of his older songs with "Freeway", a song from his 2008 album "Constant Hitmaker" that would not sound out of place on the tracklisting of a War on Drugs record (Kurt's old band who've been making quite a name for themselves in the past year). Vile then played a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Downbound Train". The Boss' influence is strong in Vile's music, so it's no surprise he pays tribute to Springsteen at live shows. Vile finished the main portion of the show with a solo performance of the quiet, reserved "Wild Imagination", followed by the fast stomper "Freak Train", which turned out to be a favourite amongst an informed and enthusiastic crowd.
After a short break, Vile and his Violators returned for a two-track encore that featured "Dead Alive". In a change of pace and sound, Vile cranked up the reverb on this song to create an atmospheric sound that stayed true to the album-recorded version. The show closed with "The Hunchback", a tune featuring fuzzy, distorted guitar leads and a catchy, maracas-led drum beat. Vile finished the show by thanking the crowd for the fabulous turnout, before offering a shy but heartfelt wave as he left the stage. Overall, I had a blast. The venue has excellent acoustics and a smart layout, and Kurt Vile and the Violators delivered a classy, thoroughly-enjoyable performance. This is a band that keeps on going from strength to strength, and I shall certainly be seeing them again if they tour my way in the future.