On a tour that is selling out significantly larger venues like Lincoln Hall in Chicago and New York's Bowery Ballroom, Kurt Vile gave Portland a true gift in performing at the Doug Fir. The relatively small space that sound engineer Mick Learn has turned into a sonic temple proved perfect backdrop for a band that's hit a graceful stride and only going forward. Vile and band have reached towering new indie heights with the release of Wakin On A Pretty Daze, a frontrunner for the most complete and technically impressive album of the year thus far.
On Friday, the Philly native effortlessly demonstrated his "top of his game" status from behind a safety blanket of long brown hair. The quality of his last two records would afford a normal person an ego, but Vile, based on this show and what I've deduced from several interviews, is the quiet hero. He's always struck me as more of a stay-at-home music geek, a family man even (which he is). Which is odd, because this contradicts the man's
"rock circuit circa 1972" appearance and gift for the guitar. Based on the crispness of Friday's set, Vile appears to be spending more time honing in on the perfect cast of musical influences and studying their ways rather than basking in his own success. Maybe there's lasting humility in driving a forklift, his pre-music gig.
Which translates to a noteworthy live performance, especially when most of the tracks off your newest record check-in at about seven minutes in length. There was little banter, but that would have been wasteful. From the searing open of "Wakin on a Pretty Daze" to a reconstructed encore version of "Baby's Arms," Vile and his Violators spent the evening flexing coolness and composure. The band channeled classic rock fixtures like the Velvet Underground and Tom Petty and, to a lesser extent, heartland rockers Kansas. In incorporating his own brand of grown-up stoner rock and delightfully sluggish, drifting vocals, Vile and his sound is more himself than homage.
The set was strong throughout, with certain jaw-dropping standouts. The pulsing "Shame Chamber," arguably the bounciest and most radio-friendly track on Pretty Daze, came to a gripping crescendo of piercing howls, frantic guitar soloing and tireless percussion. It was almost as though Vile was baiting the FM dial only to forcefully back away and maintain his musical independence. "Girl Called Alex," a heady, wafting song that grows increasingly more agitated and electrified as the measures race by, had the crowd applauding before it was even over. The band, which alternated from four members to six depending on the song, was a deadeye single unit from start to finish.