by Kyle Swenson
A lot of lessons in the air last night at the Kurt Vile/ J. Mascis show at the Grog Shop. Like if you buy a faux leather jacket from Urban Outfitters, make sure you’re not standing within a handshakes distance from two other concert goers in the exact same duds. And no matter the discount on other beer brands, PBR will rein supreme.
And even though he might not exactly have a Vince Neil-like draw, indie chicks will still turn out for an aging J. Mascis, line the back wall and stare dreamily at the greatest musician Kurt Cobain ever opened for.
But the best lessons on display were probably the things Kurt Vile could pick up from living legend Mascis himself. The talented Philly singer-songwriter has released a considerable number of albums already, including the recent and generally admired Smoke Ring for My Halo. Career-wise, Vile is on the cusp of either expanding artistically, or just gargling the same sound again and again. One key to the former might be to dump his backing band.
I’m not sure whether the Violators are the musicians Vile can afford or just the guys he cut lawns with back in the day. As players, they’re not very good. Vile, on the other hand, is. But the mismatch leads to a late-Neil Young thing where the main man is pretty much the whole show, the other musicians running in the wake, just wallpapering the room. The results can be self-indulgent and a little boring. The band’s game plan was to pave the room over with fuzz, which actually worked in a lot of places. As a guitar player, Vile can peel the paint with the best of them, and it was good to hear the band hot wire Halo’s laid back rockers like “Jesus Fever” and “On Tour” in the live setting. But overall, the molasses rhythm section dialed the dynamics down.
Really, the solution to what I’m talking about here is no further than Dinosaur Jr.’s famed first albums with Lou Barlow on bass and Murph on drums — that was a rhythm section, as erratic as a tennis ball chucked inside a cement cell, always on the verge of outrunning the songs themselves. It was sloppy, but made for dynamic music. Vile would do well to hire a drummer whose high hat is high art, a bass player who makes you rethink your sex life.
With just a stool and an amped up acoustic guitar, Mascis proved himself an old pro. Like the gray ghost of indie rock, he came out, plopped down in front of the crowd, and began running through a set balanced between classic Dino tracks and songs from his acclaimed solo album, Several Shades of Why. For a guy revered for creating weather patterns out of guitar distortion, Mascis can still captivate with quieter material. Highlights included “Listen to Me” and “Where Are You.” Despite the coffee-house mode, Mascis still melted faces: during “Get Me,” a track from Mascis’ side work with the Fog, J. rolled out a guitar solo that would make Jimmy Page chew on his royalty checks.