Kurt Vile & the Violators / Mess Esque @ The Princess Theatre
Perennial slacker god Kurt Vile has a unique love affair with the Great Southern Land. He's recently collaborated and performed onstage with Courtney Barnett and opened for Nick Cave and Warren Ellis at their once-in-a-lifetime Hanging Rock gig. Vile is also no longer a wannabe Neil Young for the millennial age, he has well and truly arrived. Now he’s taking his Violators to promote their most recent LP (watch my moves) to the world.
According to promoters Mistletone, Kurt Vile and the Violators haven’t had a headline tour in Australia since 2011, with a cancelled 2020 tour still stinging to this day. Although I’m sure punters appreciated his support spots in the intervening years, the real deal is getting to see this new guard of singer-songwriter deep dive into their new stuff and wheel out the older hits with a headliner gig. Meanjin’s own Mess Esque is a splendid pairing for a soulful evening of ambling guitar landscapes. Mess Esque are a collaboration between Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner and McKisko composer Helen Franzmann and these musos have already cut their teeth and earned their stripes in the Australian and international scene. Immediately after Franzmann delicately delivered her Acknowledgement of Country, Mess Esque picked up instruments and a pleasant wash of somber reverence changed the mood completely, not unlike seeing Angel Olsen or Mazzy Star live. Much like Dirty Three, Mess Esque’s live tracks meander over radio-friendly unit shifter length with an accentuated focus on Mick’s guitar virtuosity. Vile and Mess Esque bonded over their joint 2022 Summer European tour and much of what was seen and heard on this warm Meanjin evening might even be considered a love-child product of their tour experiences.
Vile’s first words to the audience when he graced the stage were, ‘thanks for coming, love you’ before he launched into new track Palace of OKV in Reverse. There is a more melancholy tone to Vile’s new album (watch my moves) and Palace of… 's lyrical content evokes confusion and anxiety on the one hand, while the steady beat and guitar reinforces the religiously laidback attitude that Vile is married to, on the other. It’s hard to imagine Vile playing over a short, fast and loud punk or metal beat, or smashing his guitar into an expensive amp. It wouldn’t be him; but there’s always time for reinvention! Vile’s story-laden lyrics so often come across as almost contentless. Idiosyncratic vocalizations where the warbling timbre of his voice and frequent use of the loud-quiet-loud dynamic -utilized so heavily in the apex of the Seattle Sound years- results in an only blurry audience cognizance of his well-pondered words. This was less of an issue when Vile whipped out an acoustic guitar and finger-plucked a tender and frank cover of country-folk legend John Prine’s How Lucky. The life and work of John Prine -who sadly passed from COVID complications in 2020- is a massive influence on the style of Vile.
The lights in the Princess Bandroom went down, the Violators retreated, and Kurt was left on stage by his lonesome, with an acoustic guitar to play How Lucky and a follow-up track from 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo – Runner Ups. The line from the latter track ‘my best friend is long gone / but I got runner ups’, hits different following up from Vile’s tribute to Prine and produces a heartfelt yet carefree attitude to heavy issues like the death of a friend. Absurdly skirting the edge of flippancy, the grief is written in the notes he picks on his guitar, even as his lyrics indicate a much more IDGAF attitude; is he facetious in his dismissal of loss, or hopeful in his acceptance of the next thing to come along?
The Violators returned to the stage for Flying Like A Fast Train, arguably the lead track from the new album. Vile describes his life like the Icarus myth, full of flying, crash and burn with a general reference to feeling very good. At a relatively slow pace, the lyrics only forewarn of the crash and burn coming as an inevitable whimper, rather than a meltdown. Vile has trademarked a kind of bell-curve shaped vocal pitch shift, which he uses as a flourish at the end of his many verses. It’s one thing that seems to exclusively belong to him, along with his ambling free-association style of lyrical delivery. At first listen, you could only assume that Vile and his buddies don’t have a care in the world. Closer inspection of the lyrics would suggest otherwise. Vile’s best-known track is without doubt Pretty Pimpin’ and a prime example of a laidback vibe over lyrics that remind one of those whiplash moments you look in the mirror and realise you’re not a kid anymore. The last track of the evening was another cover, The Silver Jews’ Punks In The Beerlight. This reviewer doesn’t mind telling you that upon hearing the first few bars, these words burst forth from his mouth, ‘No way! they’re playing Silver Jews! It’s the best one too! F--- YEAH!’. Excellent night out.
- Matt Hall.