In the realm of indie rock, few artists are held in higher regard than Kurt Vile. With a wide-ranging list of collaborators, from Courtney Barnett to Steve Gunn to The War on Drugs (who he co-founded in 2005 before leaving for his own project), Vile’s signature stamp of laidback guitar-focussed rock can be heard throughout the genre.
Since the first post-War On Drugs release in 2008, Constant Hitmaker, the Philly rocker’s popularity and critical acclaim gradually intensified with each subsequent release, as he slowly came to find his sound. By 2013’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze, things we’re off and running, as the Neil Young meets Dinosaur Jr. comparisons began to trickle in. Now, at 39 years old with nine full-length releases under his belt, Vile finds himself as an established veteran in the crowded indie rock scene, with a sound that is unanimously recognized as Kurt Vile once heard—an accomplishment that most can only dream of ever achieving.
This sound is one that reflects Vile’s overall demeanor: laidback, off-kilter, often times sporadic, often times exploratory, always 100 percent Kurt Vile. On Saturday night, each of these facets of Vile were on full display, as he brought a special night of refreshing rock & roll to a packed White Oak Music Hall.
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Going right into “Loading Zones,” the lead single to his recently-released Bottle Me In, Vile showed at the outset why he’s so highly touted by his peers. Slouched over his Gibson, with his signature locks hanging over his face, Vile paid no time for stage-banter or unnecessary showmanship. For him, the key is in the song, as it should be. As would be custom throughout the night, Vile stood in place on stage as he tore through the tune’s simple structure, only to unleash a two-minute long solo packed with every bit of emotion you could ask for. When the chorus shouts of “I park for free!” came in (a lyric that in itself encapsulates the ethos of Kurt Vile), it was clear he was letting the Houston crowd know where things stand.
With “Bassackwards,” another gem from 2018, Vile’s songwriting prowess was front and center. For over nine minutes, Vile weaved in and out of the song’s many verses, never taking a proper solo or instrumental break—an idea that seems almost foreign in today’s world of quick attention-grabbing songwriting. Yet, anchored behind his self-reflective style of lyricism (as well as solid play from his longtime backing band, The Violators), the tune ended up being one of the night's most memorable. Walking the audience through one big laidback journey, Vile’s mark was made with lines like, “I was on the Moon, but more so, I was in the grass so I was chilling out, but with a very drifting mind.”
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Throughout the set, it was impossible not to see hints of Neil Young when watching Vile on stage. Though Vile doesn’t possess the same intimidating nature of Young in a live setting, the structure of his songwriting, the note choice, and the way in which he handles his guitar, is strikingly reminiscent of the folk-rock giant (who Vile has publicly lauded as his favorite musician of all time). For instance, with “Waking on a Pretty Day,” Vile took what started out as a mellow psych-flavored tune into a drawn-out rocker that seemed to grow more and more ferocious by the second. Like Young, Vile’s style of playing is far from technical, instead filling the jam with unpredictable guitar tricks and raw emotion.
The similarities even spilled over to Vile’s song selection. A song like “Baby's Arms,” is a simple acoustic tune that rests on a repetitive four-chord structure for nearly five minutes. Not exactly an ideal set closer for a dude who hangs his hat on grunged-out guitar jams. Yet like Young, Vile used simplicity to get his point across, demanding the audience to focus in on each word uttered—a tactic that certainly paid off, as his acoustic selections ended up stealing the night.
Some rock & roll lifers may look at such a comparison as a stretch, as rock gods like Neil Young, whose sound helped define an entire generation, could never truly be duplicated in such a guitar-deficient era of popular music. However, after a show like Saturday night, rock fans can’t help but feel hopeful that we have a genre-pushing artist in 2019 who gives off even the slightest reminiscence of a legend like Young. Like an evening with Crazy Horse, this was a night of pure no-bullshit rock & roll, never really knowing what you were going to get, but never in doubt that Vile would take the song and audience where it needed to go.