Before he played “Jesus Freak,” Kurt Vile told the Orpheum that he’d been hanging around the district since 8 a.m. “I just walked up and down the street,” Vile, 37, said to the crowd gathered on the dance floor of the Ybor City venue.
It’s a wonder he didn’t hitch a ride looking for the home of songwriter John Prine, who owns a place in the area. Vile, a 37 year old songwriter from the West Mount Airy neighborhood Philadelphia, adores the American songwriting legend and recently wrote that, “Prine has so many songs that are so great, beyond great, songs that make you wanna just cry, even.”
“He's one of the greatest examples of the beauty and power in American song,” Vile added.
His own 20-year-old discography obviously has a lot of ground to cover before it catches up to the one Prine started building with a 1971 self-titled debut, but you’ve gotta hope that Vile knows he’s one of a handful of up and coming hard working American artists that could eventually find themselves nipping at Prine’s heels. For proof, all one needed to do was shut up and listen as Vile and his band — the Violators — steamed through their 90 minute set on Wednesday night.
The man with the marvelous mop of thick, wavy brown hair is a guitar and gear nerd who switched between two Stratocasters, banjo, Martin acoustics and what looked an Epiphone ES Pro with ease. Performances of “I’m An Outlaw,” “Goldtone,” and set opener “Dust Bunnies” were all marked by brawny solos that were kind of awe-inspiring considering how restrained they were. The Violators — drummer Kyle Spence and especially multi instrumentalists Jesse Trbovich and Rob Laakso — clearly know their way around the weapons they wield. Vile, for his part, almost seems like he’s finding an exponential number of tones within each individual fret, but for all the skill onstage, there were no facial spasms (sorry John Mayer) or wild guitar neck swinging.
No, Vile solos solely to let his songs breathe. He solos so that sound can spill out of the songs and into the world where they might just marinate in the air and tell listeners (or the person writing the song) a little more about what they’re feeling inside. Vile has been unafraid to follow his guitar’s ruminations over the course of his six solo albums, and in the live setting the results were nothing less than surly (“Puppet to the Man”), shimmering (“Walkin on a Pretty Day”) and super sweet (“Baby’s Arms”).
Most remarkable is the way all of the sonic meandering has manifested a poet’s notebook of lyrics that can go from abstract (“He’s Alright,” from 2009’s Childish Prodigy) to lovely (“Stand Inside,” from 2015’s b’lieve I’m goin down...) in a heartbeat. Vile, for all his aloof expressions and shy stage presence is a person fully aware of the world around him. He made it clear on early set highlight “That’s life tho (almost hate to say),” where he sings about pill popping to calm the nerves and then references both Flannery O’Connor and the Stay Puft marshmallow man to paint a pictures about destruction both physical and emotional. “I guess hell has finally frozen over,” he sings at one point before admitting, “that's life, tho. So sad, so true. That's life, tho. So sad to say.”
The most enthusiastic reaction to the set came as the Violators launched themselves into b’lieve’s big hit, “Pretty Pimpin,” a song Vile introed by saying that a song’s soulfulness is really all that matters onstage. The cut is a masterful meditation on the ups and downs of self-awareness and mental illness in these modern times. Its narrative is just as silly, sad and confusing as our newsfeeds seem to be these days.
For the “dreamers, druggers, drunkards and schemers” in the crowd, it felt like the appropriate sentiment, and the Violators are the perfect sentinels to deliver the message. As they worked through the slacker rock sounds of “Pimpin” and “KV Crimes,” it was hard not to appreciate the almost monastic devotion the band gives to their craft. And as Vile’s right hand — strangely muscular considering his boyish looks — strummed away while his left one danced around the guitar, it felt like we could unplug, and plug into Kurt Vile, to escape for a bit after all.
Kurt Vile at Orpheum — Ybor City, Florida — February 1, 2017 [Stream/Download Setlist]
I’m an Outlaw
That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)
Walkin on a Pretty Day
Girl Called Alex
Puppet To The Man