John Vanderslice with Damien Jurado
Friday, April 29, 2011
After spending countless days writing about music and countless nights checking out bands, live music begins to wear a little thin after a bit. Then, someone like John Vanderslice comes along and completely reinvigorates your energy and passion for what you do. I should begin by saying that John Vanderslice is somewhat of an indie-folk hero of mine, and thus, when I walked into RecordBar Saturday night and immediately saw that he was sitting at his own merch table, coolly chatting with his tourmates and his fans, I knew it was going to be a special night.
Aside from glancing over at him like a giddy schoolgirl while I ordered a drink, I thought it was entirely impressive that Vanderslice had no interest in staying behind closed doors in a green room. He remained accessible to his fans the entire night -- from the moment I walked in to the bar until I had to tear myself away from conversation with him after the show.
Damien Jurado, whose brand of songwriter is more melancholy and introspective than Vanderslice's. I was still in the back of the bar soaking up the Vanderslice sun, but Jurado's delicate guitar playing and slightly rough, crooning vocals were a perfect way to kick off the show. The audience seemed pretty rapt with attention as Jurado and his female stage companion (whose name I unfortunately never caught) began each song of their set. It was a quiet beginning to the evening, but an intimate and attentive one.
First to take the stage was Seattle folk singer
Caves' drummer Jake Cardwell at the merch table soon after, purchasing one of Jurado's LPs. (He also talked at length later on in the night about how impressed he was with Jurado's show.) Vanderslice, who was still standing in the back chatting with fans, had barely noticed it was his turn to take the stage. He touched one fan on the shoulder: "Oh! I guess I better get up there and get ready, huh?"
When Jurado was finished, he exited the stage to enthusiastic applause. I even caught
Vanderslice wasted little time checking his instruments and toying with the stage set-up. Instead, he got right to it: "Thank you all for coming, I wanted to first say thank you to Katie and friends, who made me this awesome card and baked me oatmeal, coconut, and walnut cookies." The card, which Vanderslice showed to the audience, sat on top of his keyboard the entire show.
As he and his tour partner Jason Slota (who played his Moog, a glockenspiel, a mandolin, and a full drum kit, essentially all at once) began the first song, they enacted some sort of a false start. "I'm not going to pretend that was normal or acceptable," Vanderslice joked into the mic. But with a laugh and another start, the show was off and running. The essence of a John Vanderslice show is that it is centered around the audience experience. Wearing a mint green Magik*Magik Orchestra t-shirt (the orchestra that recorded his latest album White Wilderness with him) and beige striped pants, Vanderslice looked like he was straight out of California.
He spent almost as much time talking into the mic between songs as he did playing them. Though that might be annoying coming from most musicians, with Vanderslice, it played out more like adult story-time. He consistently abandoned the microphone in order to walk in front of it and play directly to the audience, who crowded closer and closer with each song. A few songs into the set, Vanderslice shared a story about being in the hospital and dreaming of cutting the ropes that tied him to the bed. The lines between what was reality and dream in his story were blurry, but he ended with mention of the song "Kookaburra", the first track off of 2007's Emerald City. It's somewhat of an anthem for Vanderslice fans, and though everyone was clearly waiting for him to play it, he would wait three more songs before he did (mentioning in between each song prior that it was "coming up, soon, I promise.")
But when he did finally get to "Kookaburra", it seemed like the entire audience -- at least at the front -- was singing along, and loudly. Watching as he crafted each sound through live looping and mixing was a pretty awesome experience. And Jason Slota proved to be a wizard at the Moog-drum kit double-timing, mastering the art of appearing to play both instruments at the same time.
The set was ended with a trio of songs Vanderslice played solo with the crowd, who came up on stage and sat next to him, stood behind him, and shared in the experience on the audience floor. Vanderslice handed one audience member a boombox, which played the backing track for "Thule Fog" as he strummed away on his acoustic guitar. Next in the medley was "Time to Go", and though it seemed like that might have been an appropriate way to end the evening, with the whole bar singing, rather sweetly and quietly, Vanderslice offered up one last treat: "We're gonna play one more song, and then we're gonna have a dance party." After a rousing rendition of "White Dove", the sound immediately cut to dance music, and Vanderslice did just that -- he danced.
It's not often that shows are filled with so much genuine audience participation (on the part of both the performer and the audience themselves), and lack the fanfare of bright lights and even an encore. The Vanderslice show isn't a performance, it's a shared experience; and Vanderslice's assessment of his time in Kansas City is perfectly fitting: "I can't believe we've never been to Kansas City before. This is incredible. We're coming back next month."
Critic's notebook: A few gems: the girl who sang with Damien Jurado attempting to order a pizza from RecordBar server Matty Ingle ("Appetite for Destruction? I don't think my appetite is quite ready to be destroyed."), Vanderslice geeking out over photography specs with local photographer Forester Michael, his crew carrying on a long conversation with me about how impressive the Nelson-Atkins Museum was (they were in Kansas City all day, and spent some time both in the museum and in the sunshine on the sculpture lawn).
Overheard in the crowd: Actually overseen -- an avid fan having a blond-off with Vanderslice (I believe she won).
Do You Remember
Up a Bone
Thule Fog/Time to Go/White Dove