all words: William Alberque
all photos: Shauna Alexander
Kurt Vile and Thurston Moore played an evening of exquisite and mannered music Monday night at the Black Cat.
You could have expected Kurt Vile to play quietly and delicately: his latest album is titled Smoke Ring for My Halo. But you equally could have expected a night of droned out, noisy guitar rock (as when he toured as Kurt Vile and the Violators). Monday, we got the former: each song featured delicate and intricate acoustic guitar patterns while Vile’s gentle vocals caressed the night air.
But Thurston Moore? I expected waves of layered guitar noise to tear through the evening, with hints of songs underneath. Instead, the sold-out crowd was treated to jokes, stories, poems, and a set of breathtakingly wonderful and gentle indie songs.
Kurt Vile took the stage stealthily and started the set to no fanfare – I didn’t even realize he was playing until a few minutes into his first song. The entrancing acoustic guitar sounds were joined perfectly by his elegantly wasted vocals to great effect. Vile has a surprisingly expressive voice, despite the flat, nasally American accent – often amplified with a subtle echo – and reminds me of a young Lou Reed or Chris Bell, or a gentle Richard Hell.
The songs are stripped to the absolute minimum, with only an occasional harp or second guitarist joining him on stage. Vile is confident in his abilities, with no showmanship at all to accompany his set. Just him, with his unruly hair, seated, letting his thoughtful songwriting and accomplished guitar playing work their magic.
Vile’s only acknowledgement of the live venue is to ask if anyone bought any good records today. He mentions Wild Honey – I assume he means the Beach Boys album, rather than a new band I’ve missed – but no one picks him up on his banter, and he’s back to his songs. One reminds me strongly of Kristen Hersh’s acoustic rendition of “Pearl,” and I half expect him to sing, “I write on his wall, I have no mind at all.”
I think it’s just me, though. The set is so subtle and delicate; it’s almost lost amongst all the Sonic Youth fans talking to each other excitedly in anticipation of Moore’s set. More’s the pity – I’d like to see Vile play Sixth and I next time.
Thurston Moore takes the stage and immediately sets the scene for what’s to come, joking that his slow-to-emerge band is somewhere behind him, but that his drummer has a sore foot. He is dressed nattily, with a suit and tie, and jokes that his band is the Jimmy Carter Youth Patrol, saying Carter tried to shut down the punk clubs. He deadpans that he much prefers Ronald Reagan – after all, without Reagan, we wouldn’t have hardcore, now would we? The crowd laughs, and he launches into his set.
Well, “launches” would be a bit misleading. These songs are not unleashed, but unfolded, slowly, with Moore on a mandolin-esque guitar, gently easing into an entrancing number that ends with a noisy, but relatively acoustic, cacophony. He is joined during the song by violin, a second guitar, harp, and drums. The second song is similarly sweet, with a bit of a Kendra Smith flair, followed by a poem about cassettes. Or something. More and more, the set unfurls gently across the night, with beautiful song after beautiful song. I didn’t expect to compare Thurston Moore to Ra Ra Riot and Galaxie 500, but those are the reference points that leap readily to mind.
The audience seems in two minds about the performance. On the one hand, I can see many of them in a state of slight agitation – this isn’t what they signed up for. Then again, those who’ve heard Demolished Thoughts (his latest) know exactly what they’re in for, and they seem to quite enjoy it. One idiot yells something out – another seems to sing a little ditty – both dismissed wonderfully by Moore and his experienced stage presence (of mind). He keeps up the stories, telling one about Minor Threat at CBGBs, with “the lead singer wearing all these heavy clothes,” before declaring that Moore’s present band is “soft rock, and soft rock is the new hardcore.”
The song that follows is beautiful, with strings and harp and a noisy but lo-fi, Velvet Underground feeling to it. I look up from my notes to see Moore facing off with fellow band mates in some kind of drinking contest – I think he asked if the Cat carried Hendricks? – before launching into the next set. And it keeps coming.
A fair amount of the audience is gone after an hour or so – I don’t entirely blame them, but I don’t want to leave. It’s been an utterly fantastic show by both acts, and Moore just keeps going and going. It’s not too often that I haven’t heard a note of an album, and desperately want a copy by the end of my first live experience of it. He’s a well-dressed man, though, and his erudition and elegance carries the evening. A truly great Monday night out.