Show Review: Kurt Vile At City Hall

On August 28th, the city of Philadelphia launched the first ever “Kurt Vile Day” with a free performance by the man himself in the courtyard of City Hall. The universe in turn said “no, no, this Kurt freaking Vile. No way we’re making it that easy for you” and proceeded to pummel the greater Philadelphia area into submission with rain for the majority of that day.  And though the downpour had ceased by the concerts 5:30 start time, you could really tell that the only people in attendance were the truly determined. Center city was so utterly drenched by this point that you could be electrocuted by being in the same zip code as someone plugging in an amp, and people still came out for an hour long acoustic set, some even bringing their kids. I honestly couldn’t think of a better testament to the concept of Kurt Vile Day if I tried (and I really have).

Now, for any Philadelphians unfamiliar with the musician Kurt Vile, Oh my god, what is wrong with you?! Have you been living in a cave? Okay, sorry, maybe that’s a bit harsh; some explanation is probably necessary. It’s just that Kurt Vile, who emerged from Philadelphia’s Punk/Indy scene, is something of Philadelphia’s favorite son at the moment. His last two solo albums, Smoke Ring for My Halo and Wakin on a Pretty Daze received explosive exposure and widespread critical acclaim, combining psychedelic ambience with punkish instrumentation, and soulful, mellow lyrics. He’s almost comparable to a grungier, more awkward Bob Dylan. But it’s really the fact that Vile stuck to Philly after all this success –where so many others would charge off to California or New York—that has essentially put our city back on the map musically in a lot of ways.

When the music started, there was something oddly powerful about listening to “In My Baby’s Arms” while feeling the 5:45 Broad Street Line hum under your feet, as you’re experience something fundamentally and intensely “Philly”. It’s really rather fitting that Vile would perform at the very heart of our city, since after seeing him perform I’m fairly confident that he is our collective spirit animal. Our long haired, pleasantly awkward spirit animal. He really embodies that charming weirdness at the heart of Philly, all of the quirks that make us unique as a city, to the very letter.

There are really few performers out there where the live performance completely redefines the body of their work, but Kurt Vile is definitely among them. If you listen to his music—even casually—you absolutely have to see the man on stage. First and foremost, because it’s friggin’ adorable. With the thick black curtains of hair and his face pressed into the microphone, he looks like a casually dressed Cousin It, and for the first 20 minutes or so, he played so timidly it was almost unbelievable. As famous as he’s getting, Kurt Vile still played with the demeanor of a 4th grade talent show contestant (while still killing the set, mind you). You hear a lot about how artists like Dave Grohl stay grounded in their fame, but Vile genuinely seems like a man who is fundamentally confused and bewildered by the concept. It’s rather incredible to see someone play music that well and still be so far from a “rock star” in demeanor. He never seemed like he didn’t know what he was doing on stage, just that he was confused why all these people were staring at him while he did it.

And that awkwardness only really subsided as he gradually got more and more into the music itself, as you started seeing his face contort to the unique mood of each successive song. You really got to see the man feel the music in a rather intense way; when he sang “Smoke Ring for My Halo” his eyes cranked up into his skull with the most oddly specific look of annoyance you’ve ever seen, and in “Jesus Fever” he displays this almost childlike glee. It was once said of Miles Davis that you don’t pay to see him play, but rather to see him think; that sort of carries over with Vile, except you’re more going to try to figure out what the hell is going through his head. He performs with such emotion and expresses it in such an unorthodox way that seeing him in action is akin to solving some sort of massive riddle.

When everything is said and done, the Kurt Vile show at City Hall was an hour long set with no encore, and some of the most awkward between-song banter I’ve ever heard. The Violators were noticeable absent, and Kurt even admitted to being rusty without them. And y’know what? It was still fantastic, if just for how completely earnest the whole thing was. The show never felt like a performance but rather one guy who happened to be playing the guitar and a crowd of people who happened to have braved the nastiest weather in weeks for the chance to be there.

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  1. Pingback: Rock On Philly’s Top Music Moments of 2013 - Rock On Philly

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