“We’re not going to play any Lou Reed tonight out of respect to the man,” said Kurt Vile on the evening of the legendary rocker’s death. “Wouldn’t want to sully his life work.”
Though Vile was being facetious, the Philly rocker’s Sunday night set at the Ottobar channeled the late Reed in more ways than he’d care to admit, offering a diverse, if not strange concert on the whole.
VBA was the first band to take the stage. The three piece, which features Vile’s singer/drummer Vince Nudo, plays a scrappy breed of garage rock – heavily distorted guitar, howling vocals, the whole nine yards. Though all the elements for an exciting set were in place, there seemed to be a general disconnect between each member of the band, and a further divide between the band and the audience. The bass player played simple repetitive lines over and over, the guitarist stoically slashed away at his guitar and Nudo was in his own head-banging world.
The next band, Beach Fossils, displayed far greater stage-chops than VBA. The critically acclaimed New York quartet is a part of the indie rock movement that aims to be the distillation of everything great about ç80s underground rock, from chiming trebly guitar, to bouncing bass lines and simple, direct drumming. Through hazy-eyed, dreamy indie pop, the band was able to get the crowd moving, with heads bopping from side-to-side on songs such as “Careless,” from 2013’s “Clash the Truth” – the upbeat rhythm section and honed-in melodies can do that to you.
Singer Dustin Payseur did the most to actively engage the crowd, ditching his guitar at one point and jumping into the crowd to rile them up. However, the one thing that bands of this ilk will always be accused of is being derivative – there’s only so much originality that a band creating Cure-meets-New World Order music can generate. Regardless, Beach Fossils played what was easily the most engaging set of the night.
At last, Kurt Vile and the Violators took the stage. The longhaired, perma-tranquil singer addressed the crowd, took a few mic-checking yelps and then launched into his catalogue of classic rock-indebted tunes.
Vile has a distinctly languid half-sung croak – like Lou Reed taking on country and Americana. It can sound lazy, world-weary and devastating all at once and is a true make-or-break deal with listeners. With Vile, either you’re in or you’re out.
He launched his set with a few fan favorites, beginning with “Wakin on a Pretty Day,” the nine-minute rambling folksy opener off his newest album, “Wakin on a Pretty Daze.” He then played a riveting three-guitar rendition of “Jesus Fever,” a poppy strummer. Each song featured a good deal of soloing from Vile, who would flick a switch to kick his guitar from traditional acoustic to hair-raisingly distorted.
The set then began to sag with monotonous, six-plus-minute, slower-tempo songs that blurred together. The problem wasn’t the songs so much as Vile’s stage presence. Standing stock-still and doing very little to engage the crowd, Vile looked a lot like Cousin Itt with an acoustic guitar. The crowd took to engaging themselves instead and many pulled out their smartphones to check messages or browse the Internet.
That all changed when Vile played a quick solo set, which was easily the highlight of the show. “Peeping Tomboy,” the expertly finger-plucked acoustic number was gorgeous. Vile’s twangy voice lent itself well, leaving lines like “Now I want to go, but it’s a one way street with me,” hanging over the heads of the audience. His cloistered onstage presence made him seem vulnerable and the pained lyrics of his songs all the more tangible.
The third and final portion of the set was the most disparate and ultimately disappointing section of the night. Vile ditched his mumbled croon and took up screaming, flipping between each style with little effectiveness. The band kicked into high gear, but with the droning of Vile’s acoustic guitar and the 12-string guitar on stage, the melodies were difficult to pick out. The last song of the set featured programmed drums, a saxophone solo and Vile’s newfound shouting, leaving the audience wondering what had happened to the stage-shy Kurt from 20 minutes ago.
In all, the night was characterized by strengths becoming weaknesses. Moments of beauty and well-wrought talent became overshadowed by overindulgence, much like Mr. Reed and … errr … Loutallica.