“Play ‘Too Hard!’” a fan yelled out last night during Kurt Vile and The Violator’s set at Neumos. The Philadelphia band is on tour in support of their April 9th release, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. The new record features longer songs than before, delving deep into private lyrical substance. “Too Hard” addresses Vile’s position as a father, and how he might live a better life for his daughters. It’s incredibly self-reflective, even self-critical at times. Acknowledging the fan’s request, Vile called back, “It’s too hard!” to widespread laughter. A crowd member retorted, “Play what you want!”
Though Vile’s new album explores new territory in longer, more introspective tracks (“Too Hard” is 8 minutes long), he stuck to louder, catchier tracks last night. Popular favorites “On Tour” and “Jesus Fever” from 2011’s Smoke Ring for my Halo even seemed slightly souped up, faster with longer instrumental breakdowns. A surprising move was the omission of “Never Run Away,” the recent single with a brand new music video. The band delivered on “Shame Chamber,” a rolling, rollicking track with an infectious, synchronized yell during the chorus. Vile’s voice hits the same high pitched yelp every line, grounding the track and pushing it onward. It’s one I wish lasted longer, and I felt the same yearning for more when I heard it live.
The setlist was comprised primarily of songs from Wakin on a Pretty Daze and Smoke Ring for my Halo. Vile included “Hunchback” and “Freak Train” from 2009’s Childish Prodigy, but stopped short of his pre-Matador Records material. He played through the set with sparse interactions with the crowd, just one half of his face left visible through a mess of thick brown hair.
New York guitarist Steve Gunn brought a country rock power jam feel to his opening set, even remarking, “We tend to jam a bit, but it’s good to keep it tight.” Vile is a huge fan of Gunn’s work, and had him perform on a few songs with the Violators. The work was concentrated and intricate, but it held the crowd’s attention.
Next up were San Francisco’s The Fresh & Onlys, fronted by Tim Cohen of the mid-2000’s band Black Fiction. Once Cohen had set the stage with bizarre wig mannequins for decoration, the set exploded into being, guitarist Wymond Miles whipping around, voluminous hair flying. Spacey, optimistic guitar danced over driving, progressive drum and bass lines, creating refreshingly excited, energetic rock. The front row danced while other crowd members seemed to meditate, following the grooves. Kurt Vile came out and performed The Fresh & Onlys’ track “Waterfall” with the band. Cohen had a taste for the dramatic, blowing kisses, throwing his guitar down, and chucking one of the wigs into the crowd as they left the stage.
Towards the end of his energized set, Vile took a moment alone to play an acoustic “Peeping Tomboy.” The crowd quieted and Vile’s tender voice filled the space with simple yet profound lamentations like, “I don’t want to change but I don’t want to stay the same.” People mouthed the words silently, mesmerized by Vile’s songmanship. After the glorious love song “Baby’s Arms,” he stood at the mic, bashfully addressing the crowd through dark curls. “I love you,” he murmured, leaving the stage as humbly as he’d arrived, but to roaring applause.