Finger-Picking a Way To My Heart

photo by Alix Critchley

“Going to see the Fresh & Onlys?” the clerk at Red Cat Records asked when he caught a glimpse of my ticket as I pulled out an unrelated receipt from my wallet.

“Actually, they were the only show I ever walked out of. I’m going for Kurt Vile.”

“Yeah, that wasn’t a good show for them,” even he had to admit.

But even I had to admit that when I previewed the F&Os before I saw them with Terry Malts back in September, I didn’t think the lushly melodic San Fran rockers were all bad. And though I never held record store employees in any particular reverence for their tastes or opinions, for whatever reason, I decided to trust his instincts and not skip the F&Os; maybe I was subconsciously swayed by us having agreed that both the F&Os and Terry Malts were underwhelming at the Media Club.

Before the F&Os could prove the clerk right (or wrong), however, Steve Gunn had a chance to turn heads himself. Somehow, this New-York-care-of-Philadelphia guitarist totally flew under my radar despite his fifteen years in music. I don’t mean I think of myself as a musical encyclopaedia; I just couldn’t believe an American Primitive guitarist in the vein of other forward-thinking blues/folk revivalists such as the late Jack Rose (with whom Gunn has collaborated and once shared a city of residence) could have gotten past me.

Gunn opened with “Old Strange” from his newest album Time Off (Paradise of Bachelors, 2013). His intricate, finger-picked guitar work ebbed and flowed over and around John Truscinski’s rolling rock drums, serenely weaving like a stream or rushing like a river until Trunscinski’s drum hits came tumbling down like an avalanche.

Such was the general course of Steve Gunn’s songs. He only played three, jumping from acoustic to electric and back to acoustic, but considering how long each one was and how much variation occurred within, it was enough to make up a full set in terms of length and quantity.

Gunn proved that despite how much punk or twee or New Wave or whatever I’ve gotten into in recent years, I’m still a blues guy at heart. He was one of the rare performances in which you could close your eyes and get lost in the music, imagining the changing scenery, without feeling guilty about missing what’s going on onstage – that the “point” of seeing live music is to see music be performed. He is certainly one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen live. Openers rarely capture audiences’ attention so much. He set the bar for the F&Os – who were already handicapped by my previous experience with them – and even Kurt Vile, really high.

Now came test time: the Fresh & Onlys vs. Leslie Ken Chu, round two. Rereading about them, I couldn’t wrap my head around why the F&Os had been so widely tagged as garage rock; they seemed too airy and uplifting. They were never “in my face”. It was those not-quite-rocking, not-quite-relaxing (read: colourless) melodies that drove me away the first time. But maybe it was getting a close look at those four guys – Tim Cohen (vocals/rhythm guitar), Shayde Sartin (bass), Kyle Gibson (drums) and particularly their helicoptering lead guitarist Wymond Miles – that made me hear them differently.

Although the F&Os rocked harder and were catchier than I remembered, unfortunately for them, the best part of their set for me (and I’m sure for most others there too, despite the almost inaudible reaction it got) was when Kurt Vile leapt onstage and provided “oohs” on “Waterfall”. As the song wrapped, he grabbed his bag of Zulu Records goodies before exiting from the opposite side of the stage (watch out for Kurt’s upcoming pre-gig interview at Zulu Records with Northern Transmissions).

At the end of the day, the band is “fresh” for sure but “only” not so much. They sound good, and they play well, but there’s a lot more music like them out there that’s more original. That said, even though the F&Os didn’t fully live up to Red Cat’s endorsement for me, they certainly weren’t the band I saw at the Media Club. I definitely see how they can appeal to people now. They even managed to keep me away from the exit this time around.

photo by Alix Critchley

Now it was time for the Kurt Vile show I should have experienced almost two years ago at the boxy, cold Rickshaw Theatre, rows away from the high leveled stage. As always, the Biltmore provided a setting so intimate, you could touch the performers if you wanted to. At least one person pretty much did as she passed Kurt a heart-shaped note which he gladly accepted and placed on top of his amp.

With musicians as prolific as Vile, it’s impossible for fans to expect them to play most of their best songs or even all of their crowd-pleasers. But he tried his best and sure played a lot of tested, familiar ones in his almost Smoke Ring For My Halo– and Wakin on a Pretty Daze-exclusive set including “On Tour” and “Jesus Fever”. Kurt’s backing band the Violators, which featured a returning Steve Gunn on a handful of songs, didn’t take a break until near the end of the show at which time Kurt kept the audience cool with a solo version of “Snowflakes”.

By that time, Vile’s set had run long forcing him to abbreviate it by a couple of songs. Unfortunately, that included his most unchained, sprawling mind-melter, the Krautrock-infused “Freak Train”. But there was still time for him to finally finger-pick his way through “Peeping Tom” and for the band to rejoin him in banging out “Hunchback”. I have to note that Vile’s most riff-laden songs from his new album Wakin on a Pretty Daze, including “KV Crimes” and “Shame Chamber”, worked as well as I expected live. “Baby’s Arms”, intended for the encore, made it through the time constraint for a tender goodnight.

Watching Kurt Vile so up close seemed almost surreal. Time didn’t seem to move the same way it did during Steve Gunn or the Fresh & Onlys. Both felt more physically present more tangible. Vile played a great show for sure, yet at the end of the night, during my short walk home, it was the earthy Steve Gunn who left the most vivid impression on me. It’s three days later, and Vile still seemed but a dream… but maybe that’s just me, still wakin on a pretty daze.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu