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all words: Mindy Barrett
all photos: Chris Chen

It’s strange to revisit a particular sound that you think you’ve outgrown. For me listening to John Vanderslice is like time-traveling back to high school via mixtapes from sensitive ex-boyfriends. He belongs to a singer-songwriter subgenre that I refer to as “gentle-sad-man music.” This sound has many iterations: goofily genius (Ben Folds’ Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner); suicidally accessable (Elliot Smith’s Either/Or); anachronistic-but-catchy (The Decemberists’ Castaways and Cut-Outs); Folksy and lonely (The Red House Painters’ Songs for a Blue Guitar). There are hundreds of other examples, most of them preciously obnoxious, but you get the gist.

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While I broadly categorize Vanderslice with these artists, I appreciate his talent and lyrical craftsmanship as something wholly unique and worth listening to. John Vanderslice should definitely be added to your singer-songwriter playlist, as his weirdness and friendliness will fill the void that all the Becks and Neutral Milk Hotels in the world never can.

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This show was adorable. And sold out. Ticket-selling-ly adorable. I have to admit, I haven’t known of John Vanderslice for more than a few months. I was one of a handful of people that didn’t sing along with every song. I briefly feared being outed as an outsider but this seemed like a pretty affable and welcoming audience, probably not prone to violence.

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Vanderslice and his drummer were genuinely giddy and excited to be playing for their audience, which shouldn’t be remarkable, but sadly is. Live, the music held up to his records, despite the subtraction of a traditional band, and for some songs, an orchestra. His drummer was phenomenal, and played multiple instruments at once. Vanderslice, himself, played keyboard and guitar. Together, they had a dynamic energy that I dare say permeated even the coldest of hepcat hearts. I’m not a big enough fan of his to reliably speak about individual songs, but he put on a great performance.

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In between songs, Vanderslice bantered with his mother (he defines himself as a “momma’s boy” and calls her everyday), told anecdotes about LSD, and invited us all to visit his studio in San Francisco. He also invited short people from the back of the room to come sit on stage, so they’d have a better view. AND he had some cool pre-recorded transition music. Most impressively, Vanderslice also incorporates audience participation into his act – not in an obnoxious “clap when I tell you to” way, but by inviting audience members on stage to sing with him. And should they not know the harmonies, they get to sing lead.

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There were two participants tonight, both of whom were really good. Visibly nervous, they were put at ease with Vanderslice’s encouragement and incredible audience support. I think this might have been the nicest show I’ve ever seen. I felt like baking cookies and going to the park when it ended. Which is sort of better than puking on the sidewalk from nervously over-drinking.
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