There are few ideas that loom larger in American music legend than the concept of the rock star. A legendary figure, he exists for only one purpose in life: to see the masses swoon in appreciation of his mere appearance onstage. A band may have all the talent in the world, but without a larger than life personality leading the sonic charge and embodying the sound for a live audience, there is a good chance those good vibrations will fall on deaf ears. Many modern front men have tried to capture the animalistic energy of rock legends like Jagger, Hendrix or Mercury, and some have done it well. Is there room in rock and roll for another kind of star? Someone who struts and preens about the stage may no doubt have a commanding presence, and perhaps even the guitar chops to match. But no recent rock star I have seen displayed anything onstage even close to resembling the calm, brooding intensity Kurt Vile and the Violators brought to the Haunt this past Sunday night.
The Haunt proved to be the perfect location for the show, its intimate size allowing for the sound to resonate to the farthest corners of the space. Opener Xylouris White set the tone for the evening with their deceptively simplistic style. When I saw two portly gentlemen with massive grey afros enter with a Bloody Mary in hand, perhaps you can forgive me for not giving them the benefit of the doubt. However, what unfolded was a magnificent partnership between Cretan lutist George Xylouris and American drummer Jim White, both committed craftsmen, with each song rising from a soft melodic intro into an all out barrage of fury from both ends. The crowd was pleased, and made even more hungry for the real show to begin.
After an interminable sound check of each and every one of the ten guitars used in the show, the band sauntered onstage. After a mic check they launched into “Dust Bunnies,” a wavy, wobbly track that both showcased the subtle power of Vile’s voice and highlighted the solidity and unity of the band. From the first note until the last, it was apparent that they were going to bring a full wall of well-balanced rock and roll sound to the Haunt. Next, Vile transitioned to his banjo and the band launched into their rousing rendition of “I’m an Outlaw,” which was much more potent, pointed and focused then the album version. One crisp, perfectly balanced performance of “Pretty Pimpin” later, it became clear that the band did not plan on letting off of the gas pedal at any point in the night.
As the night progressed I became more and more conscious that I had not only seriously underrated Kurt Vile’s skill with an axe, but that I had misjudged his music entirely. What I had thought was bland, mellow, stoner rock was in practice revealed to be nothing other than the endless procession of some of the crunchiest riffs I have ever heard. I had mistaken the sheen of good production for a lack of depth, and associated his long hair and laid back attitude with the numbing carelessness of the pothead. I have rarely been so pleased to be mistaken, although I was not totally off-base. Experienced live his music is far more personal, raw and present. I was able to bathe in the rhythm and soak in every chord. What’s more, as the night went on, Vile’s stage presence only seemed to grow, and the song choices became increasingly poignant.
There was a moment halfway through the show when I realized that I had come full circle, and that I now loved Kurt Vile. It happened when he sent his band off and grabbed his acoustic. Without the trappings of the band Vile loomed even larger on the stage. His voice swelled to fill every corner of the space, and somehow along the way it weaseled its way into my heart. The crowd was extremely calm throughout the night, in keeping with the aesthetic demands of his persona, but when he played alone the room went still. There were no side conversations, no drunken hookups, just a few hundred people utterly enraptured by what was occurring in front of them. The man played his guitar with so much dedication that by the time he got halfway through “Stand Inside” he was stretching his fret hand in and out in a violent manner between chords just so that he could forge ahead with the song. By the end of the set, when he pulled out his white electric and led his band through a ferocious version of “Freak Train,” I had realized exactly what I was witnessing.
For one night, I was able to experience an artist, at the peak of his skill and voice, sharing the fullness of his vision with the world. At one point he looked at us, a small, seemingly low energy crowd, and asked “Is this a college town or do you people just live out here in the middle of nowhere?” It is that genuine aloofness that confirmed the premise that his sonic presence had already stated: Kurt Vile is a fucking rock star.
James Frichner is a senior in the college of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].