Review: Kurt Vile’s enjoyable, not always essential, guitar jams at SWX

Though the Philadelphia born singer/songwriter’s laidback guitar jams and hirsute gawkiness have seen him typecast as something of a stoner rock dude, Kurt Vile and his Violators appear punctual and focused as they take to tonight’s stage. Apparently, Vile isn’t at all a big weed guy and it’s a sharp, and as advertised, 9.15pm start. His lanky frame clad in jeans and blue shirt atop a black t-shirt, Vile gently utters “Hey, thank you” beneath his long, curly mane. Opener ‘Palace of OKV in Reverse’ is a typically gauzy, looping instrumental above which vile speak-sings his off-kilter lyricism (“Standin’ on top of the world when it’s startin’ to burn/And that’s the way that I feel with my head down on the pillow sometimes”)

Standout track ‘Loading Zones’ indicates perhaps that band and venue are still to coalesce on the evening’s sonics. The song’s gliding riffage seems to go missing somewhat due to Vile’s Fender being rather low in the mix. During follow up tune ‘Bassackwards’, Vile switches up to acoustic guitar and all appears to be resolved as three impressive finger-picked interludes incite cheers from the audience.

Personally as laidback as his often sprawling and repetitious song structures, Vile cuts a warm and highly likeable figure. The conclusion to many of the evening’s songs are met with his looking up to the audience and acknowledging them with a shy nod and half smile. While he does venture brief smatterings of mumbled banter, he mostly engages the crowd – somewhat uniquely – with intermittent “Yip”s, “Yea”s and “Woo”s during songs. The woozy, bouncing riff of ‘Hey Like a Child’, for instance, has vile crying out “Yip!” following his execution of a surfing guitar solo.

Amongst the not-quite-capacity audience – certainly within the area in which I’m stood – there’s an excessive babble of social chatter that is a little spoiling of the evening’s quieter moments. During the acoustically finger-picked ‘Runner Ups’, Vile and his Violators have apparently been rendered secondary to the seductive mistress of a glorious summer evening and beer fuelled conversation. For what it’s worth, it’s a song during which one notices that Vile’s slightly awkward guitar style –using just his thumb and forefinger for picking and his pinky frequently tied to the mast of his scratch plate – is somehow in keeping with his general demeanour.

Another acoustic spot arrives in the form of a cover of the late John Prine’s ‘How Lucky’ (another “yea!/yip!” from Vile) and the full band (a four piece of drums, bass, guitar/keys) return for ‘Flying Like a Fast Train.” A standout from last year’s (watch my moves), it’s probably the closest we get to a full sing-along and, reaping the audience applause, Vile utters one of those declarations that make you wonder as to its sincerity: “This is my favourite concert so far.”

The characteristically floating groove of ‘Mount Airy Hill’, is enlivened by Vile’s captivating, descending slide guitar figure. On three occasions, he ends the riff by fashioning the rock/devil horns hand gesture and the crowd duly respond with cheers. “You’re beautiful, I love you” Vile tells us before threatening a rendition of James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful”. The sprawling ‘Wakin’ on a Pretty Day’ is the ultimate showcase of his guitar skills; using wah-wah and screeching string bends, he somehow makes his acoustic axe sound like a sledgehammer electric guitar.

Vile’s songs often have the sketched character of hazy guitar jams, upon which lyrics – delivered with his effective, almost anti-singing – can be applied secondarily. It’s a style that, while enjoyable, doesn’t always feel essential. When we’re offered up something of a deep cut at the end of tonight’s set – ‘The Hunchback’, an aggressive slab of rock from the 2009 EP of the same name – it feels like a welcome change of approach. Perhaps Kurt should do angry more often, if only to drown out those with the primary goal of summer socialising.

Scott Hammond