Before Saturday night, I had yet to see Kurt Vile live. This was partially a product of bad timing, but also partially due to skepticism on my part of how Kurt Vile would translate live. One of my favorite artists, Vile’s catalog is quite deceptive. Many of his songs are slow, fuzzy, lo-fi ballads, the perfect accompaniment to staring out the window of a city bus on a rainy day, while others teeter on the threshold of being classic, beautiful, straight-up rock and roll. The question I asked myself as I approached the Crystal Ballroom was: Which Kurt Vile would we see on Saturday night?
That question was partially answered when Vile opened the evening with the rocker “Hunchback.” The nine-minute-and-53-second song had the crowd of late 20s- and early 30-somethings moshing about, but that vibe was quickly hushed when Vile abruptly switched directions and went into the opening track of his excellent 2013 album Wakin on a Pretty Daze. From there he continued down the Wakin track list by playing one of my personal favorites, “KV Crimes.”
Vile then, once again, took it down a notch, sending the band away in exchange for a single spotlight, under which he performed mellower songs from 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo (“Runner Ups,” “Ghost Town,” “Peeping Tomboy”) and 2009’s Childish Prodigy (“Heart Attack”).
Throughout this portion of the show, it was obvious that the set list had been somewhat misconstrued. Perhaps, some of the attendees had come to see Vile because of the newfound attention being bestowed upon him based on the parentheses that have seemingly come to accompany all of his recent write-ups (formerly of The War on Drugs)? Or perhaps, it was just because it was a Saturday night in Portland and many of the attendees had pre-funked before coming to the show, but the crowd noise (not in the ovation form) grew notably from the back of the room as Vile played through his softer material.
This crowd noise all but dissipated when Vile roared back with an insanely great version of “Goldtone” and quickly turned into a nonstop chorus of cheers as Vile tore his way into a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Downbound Train.”
Easily the highlight of the night was an improvisational jazz version of “Freak Train” from Vile’s 2009 Matador debut Childish Prodigy, a song Vile previously performed live in 2011 with Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox (listen below). Clocking in at over nine minutes and featuring a saxophone, this musical direction by Vile was something I had yet to hear and I was swooning.
However, in what might have been the perfect metaphor for the night, Vile proceeded to follow that completely insane performance and close out the set with “He’s Alright,” another song off Childish Prodigy and a damn fine one in its own right, but definitely a much, much mellower track.
This same approach was on display when Vile came back to perform “On Tour” (from Smoke Ring for My Halo) as his encore. The song took on a significance for Vile as Saturday night was the last stop on his very own tour, and it was a great send-off but certainly not the reverb-heavy closer that most have come to expect.
At the end of the night, the question of which Kurt Vile would we see still did not have a definitive answer. The mellower Kurt Vile made up the bulk of the show and confirmed my fears that, while beautiful, a show of his was something I’d need to be sitting down for. Yet, the more rocking version of Vile made me do something I didn’t even think was possible: like him even more than I already did.
I guess to really form a strong opinion about Kurt Vile’s live show, I’ll just have to go see him again.