Kurt Vile and the Violators at 400 Bar, 5/22/12

Kurt Vile and the Violators
With True Widow and Black Bananas
400 Bar, Minneapolis
May 22, 2012

Kurt Vile offered up "Jesus Fever", his biggest hit to date, as the second song is his set Tuesday night at the 400 Bar, something that is often seen as a mistake. Musicians are supposed to keep the fans on edge a bit, make them wait for the bigger hits until the middle or the end of the set, so the other songs can be showcased a bit.

Vile and his backing band, the Violators, displayed much mettle, however, in just getting that small housekeeping item off the checklist early so as to dig in and deliver as powerful a show as has been seen here in awhile. The three-guitars-and-drums set up is unconventional, but so are a lot of things about Vile and company. Whereas a lot music in this vein -- the singer-songwriter with a twist vein -- is often just pop music masquerading as something more, the opposite seems to be true of Vile's 2011 release Smoke Ring for My Halo: it's almost as if the songs accidentally became catchy.

Vile plucked his guitar rather than using a pick, and came off like a Frankenstein's monster of every heralded troubadour from the last 40 years (Springsteen, Neil Young, Dylan, etc.), sewn together into something almost wholly new -- the forefathers are only visible in flashes here and there -- and the set was captivating to witness.

Vile built the set up to full-speed before brilliantly (somehow) pulling the rug out from under what he had just constructed by slowing it down with a two-song acoustic mini-set that included a version of "Blackberry Song" from 2009's Childish Prodigy powerful enough to stir thoughts of packing a bag and hopping a train for parts west. That bled into "Peeping Tomboy" with it's chorus of "I don't want to work but I don't want to sit all day and frown" sums up the thoughts of just about everyone on the planet and seemed on Tuesday night to be a call to arms of sorts: get out and do something, anything. The set ended with an extended version of 'Freak Train" that either devolved or evolved (it was hard to pinpoint which, exactly) into loopy feedback that Vile then toyed with on his pedal board and he and the Violators exited the stage.

Vile came out for solo, acoustic two-song encore that ended with a breathtaking version of "He's Alright" and with that, the hour-long show was finished but not before Vile had cemented himself as possibly the most vital singer-songwriter currently active today, hands down. If there had been any "maybe"s in the crowd on Tuesday, it would have been difficult to find any who weren't fully on board by the end. Vile won't be playing small rooms like this for much longer and it was quite special to see.

Critic's Bias: I missed a good portion of Vile's set when he came through town several months ago in the opening slot for Thurston Moore. I kicked myself for having missed part of it, as what I heard then was impressive. He's gotten better since.

The Crowd: Tattooed hipsters who seemed to be drinking the place dry of Miller High Life tallboys and whiskey.

Overheard In The Crowd: Constant shouts for specific songs, which is always annoying but slightly better than the new Minneapolis pastime of pitching half-empty beers at the stage--which, thankfully, did not occur on Tuesday.

Random Tidbit: Three different people in the crowd asked me why I was writing in a notebook and one girl curtly suggested I "put the notebook away and fucking pay attention." I took it as a compliment for Vile and the fans he attracts--many of whom view him as semi-Godlike and will evangelize in his name--and not as an insult.

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