Kurt Vile
  • Beth Crook
  • Kurt Vile

Since when did Kurt Vile have enough fans in Seattle to sell out Neumos on a Sunday? The last time I saw him headline a venue, I was in Portland and his first album for Matador, 2009's Childish Prodigy, had been released a few weeks prior. I had read earlier that week that Vile was fairly hit-and-miss, and to that somewhat-interested crowd of onlookers, he and his Violators banged their way through a handful of songs that made far less of an impression than his excellent first two records, Constant Hitmaker and God Is Saying This To You?.

K-2.jpg
  • Beth Crook
  • Kurt Vile

Vile wasn't someone I'd planned to see again, but in the years since, he's all but ditched his lo-fi past in favor of uniquely sprawling, guitar-driven slackerisms that sound like they could've come from any of the last four decades of pop music without sounding out of place. He's written some of the best road songs in recent history on 2011 breakthrough Smoke Ring For My Halo, and on this year's very good Wakin on a Pretty Daze (where Vile uses his songs' lengthy run times to stretch out, take a solo or three if he feels like it, or just play a riff to himself, safe in the knowledge that there will be resolution eventually).

Kurt Vile
  • Beth Crook
  • Kurt Vile

He's also vastly improved as a performer since I last saw him. To that aforementioned sold-out (and much more excited) crowd at Neumos, Vile played a hits-friendly set to a room that knew most of his songs by their picking patterns. He and the current Violators lineup—drummer Vince Nudo, guitarist Jesse Trbovich and multi-instrumentalist Rob Laakso—kept his cosmic Americana in constant motion while Vile shook up his vocal melodies and lead lines, proving every aspect of his songs to be malleable. He took moments, that on his records can be mistaken for being laid back, and proved them to be full of potential energy; Smoke Ring standout "On Tour" was propelled forward by percussion while "Ghost Town" built to a much noisier conclusion. "Freak Train," one of a small number of older songs Vile played, saw Nudo disregard the programmed, krautrock-inspired drum machine to play aggressive, cymbal-heavy fills without getting overindulgent. Vile's screams, once buried in its recording, came through loud and clear over Neumos' PA. The mandatory mid-set solo acoustic bit served as a welcome change of pace, and despite the fact that he and his guitarists were constantly trading instruments between songs, they moved through the set effortlessly—a welcome thing given that they were, for the most part, playing very long songs at a late show on a Sunday night.

Brooklyn-by-way-of-Philadelphia guitarist Steve Gunn both opened the night and ducked in and out during Vile's set, contributing additional guitar in places. Gunn's own songs explored very English strains of blues and folk, revealing stylistic debts to songwriters like Bert Jansch and Michael Chapman. Though at times he and his backing band, which includes drummer John Truscinski and bassist Justin Tripp, spent too long in one place—even Gunn himself joking about how they'd sometimes jam too much on stage.

Fresh and Onlys
  • Beth Crook
  • Fresh and Onlys

Fresh and Onlys
  • Beth Crook
  • Fresh and Onlys

The second band, San Francisco pop mainstays the Fresh and Onlys, sounded great as they tore through songs from last year's Long Slow Dance. Frontman Tim Cohen now looks a little bit like Michael McDonald as depicted in J.D. Ryznar's hilarious Yacht Rock, but he appears to be no less confident because of it, and several years of touring have turned his often home-recorded band into something considerably more muscular than it was in years past. The strongest applause during their set came when Vile appeared to sing backup vocals on "Waterfall," a standout from their 2010 album Play It Strange.

Kurt Vile with Fresh and Onlys
  • Beth Crook
  • Kurt Vile with Fresh and Onlys

At the end of his set, Vile returned for an encore, consisting of a solo rendition of "Baby's Arms" and nothing else, followed by the sentence "Thanks, I love ya, I love ya," as he walked off. They were among the only words he said all night. Though Vile's been described, aptly, as a funnier guy than his songs initially give away (check the moment in "Wakin' on a Pretty Day" where he catches himself wondering what he's going to be joking about that day), I'm fairly comfortable assuming he's the type who communicates with strangers, many of them intoxicated, almost exclusively through music, and I'm pretty sure that we're better for it.