Elizabeth Quay looks like a cemetery during the day, but at night it's a pretty sight. Rows of carousel lights undulating alongside half-lit trees, shimmering water, glowing fencelines and temporary structures sprouting through the dark. In the middle is PIAF's "Chevron Festival Gardens" site - both a beacon of musical diversity, and a blunt reminder of the arts' dependence on oil multinationals and their ilk.
In this ambivalent space we gather to hear and cheer Kurt Vile. Doc and I grab a pair of bleacher seats behind R__ and R___, letting gravity take our weight as we sip some beer in plastic tumblers. The stage is pretty flashy, maybe thirty feet tall. Dozens of moving light fixtures, massive drapes and a hefty PA. So it's pretty funny to watch the blithe, lanky, somewhat bumbling Vile emerge on stage, dwarfed by his surroundings yet looming large in everyone's field of attention.
The house music dies off and the Philadelphia-based songman begins, lilting into action with the none-too-cheery 'Feel My Pain.' Like most of his tunes, its moribund mood is buoyed along by loveable melodies, artful bucolic fingerpicking and Vile's absorbing drawl. The set makes some early forays into not-quite-convincing loop pedal arrangements and unwieldy bluesy soloing, but soon gets back to basics with the great 'Pretty Pimpin' (a persistent lo-fi drum machine suffices as backing), 'Wild Imagination' and the pleasantly drifting 'Waking on a Pretty Day.'
You'd think the awkwardness that heralded the set would have worn off by now, making way for the natural rhythm, flow and rapport of the intimate songwriter-and-audience routine. But not really. Vile seems nervous, underrehearsed, and subsequently a little sheepish - although this all gets filtered through his totally endearing presence, and contagious readiness to shrug off imperfections.
So, resigning ourselves to the awkwardness, leaning in, we continue: a beautiful song on the banjo now (I can't find the name of it, but its main lyric is "much it is," and you can hear a somewhat muffled version on youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7G-fvXztxoA). We get a pair of melancholic songs about losing best friends ('Runner Ups,' and 'My Best Friends (Don't Even Pass This)') which give the impression of piercing through Vile's nonchalant veneer, into some of his most tender anxieties and trains of thought. There's the charming, poetic 'Blackberry Song.' There's an out-of-place, rather experimental track in which Vile intones over a cosmic loop, occasionally twanging a lone graceless guitar note, before ending in some truly absurd out-of-time riffing and power chord slop, bathed in digital stadium-rock fuzz, generally sounding like a strange (but giddily amusing) fever dream. In contrast, we get the gentle, smiling momentum of 'He's Alright'; it's a gorgeous track to end a Kurt Vile set, articulating a quiet positivity in spite of life's trials and discomforts: "The silhouette kid's swinging on a swing / scrapes his knee and bloodied brains / he shows his friends he's alive as he brags and he jives, hey / he's alright, he's alright, he's alright, he's alright. Yeeah."
Of course, as is the way with these things, the set's not really over: a stage hand swapping over guitars betrays the likelihood of an encore, and it does eventuate, bringing us Vile's collaboration with The Sadies - 'It's Easy (Like Walking)' - and his intricate, haunting 'Peeping Tomboy.' After the show, it's clear that our man's messy live aesthetic divided the crowd, with some taking it in their stride and others (understandably) expecting slicker delivery from a show that cost $80 upon second ticket release.
If I'd paid through the nose, I might have felt a bit cheated too, but the critique a tricky one. Vile clearly knows he's somewhat out of place in this Chardy-scented amphitheatre, causing him to reminisce out loud about a performance at the Sydney Opera House: "It was a very unprofessional show." He's also at peace with taking the money and just playing whatever comes out, saying of PIAF that he doesn't normally perform solo but "they made me an offer I couldn't refuse." You can't entirely blame "Kurty" (as he's called within the crowd's jocular heckles) for being his typically rumpled self; it falls with the promoters to manage audience expectations, set appropriate ticket prices, and fly out the full band if it's felt they're truly required.
For my part, I was pretty happy just to go along for the ride. A cool night under the stars; a talented but fallible soul, exposed in a slightly surreal setting, warts and all, but with charisma and creativity being the enduring impressions.
Kurt Vile is a mystery. I don't exactly mean in the brooding enigmatic rock star sense, whereby he reads as the long-haired loner, a laconic weirdo-genius outsider on the road with his guitar and an obscure past. That image is there, perhaps self-styled, but he's also an artistic mystery - treading an unusual line between bone-bare earnestness and aesthetic self-effacement, canny crowd-pleasing songcraft and harebrained noodling that feels oblivious to the external world. Like many of our most beloved artists, Vile's appeal comes from the fact that his music is a vivid reflection - and a genuine extension - of himself. Polish away the flaws, and I suspect you'd lose much of the human charm. I mean, it wouldn't hurt to tighten up the loop pedal technique or tune the guitar a bit quicker. But when all's said and done… Kurty, we love you, keep doin' you.