Weeping Elvis exists partially because of Thurston Moore. The little-told genesis of this labor of love dates to an inbox influx that occurred between a group of music lovers. The exchange centered upon a debate about, amongst other things, the greatest guitarists in rock and roll history. The already spirited debate picked up a bit – I seem to recall – once I posited the notion that no top ten list was worth a collection of ones and zeros if it didn’t laud Thurston Moore for his seminal work in Sonic Youth. My argument rested upon his extraordinary innovation, influence and the breadth and depth of his virtuous catalog. I don’t raise this point to enter into that debate – I’m sure we’ll get there soon enough – but rather to be up front with my biases on behalf of a living legend.
Washington, DC’s Black Cat was sold out for the event and also featured Philly’s much-buzzed-about Kurt Vile. An older demographic in attendance than the usual Monday night show was one that society might casually characterize as hipsters but which would never consider themselves as such. These aren’t the type who are making a fashion statement in any way so much as just wearing what they’ve been wearing to shows for 20 years. Think of the venerable slacker chic of Pavement and Wilco: The spectacles. The ’90s plaid. The Mike Ness-approved automotive worker navy blue jacket. You get my drift. That demographic, plus the bassist from Thievery Corporation who, unlike his performances, had smartly chosen to wear shoes. Thankfully, a side benefit of being at a show with serious fans is less ambient crowd banter than is becoming all too frequent at shows these days.
Kurt Vile arrived on stage in a Cobain cardigan that was matched by his similarly shy approach to the audience. Suffice it to say, he didn’t banter with the audience or otherwise engage the crowd. His stage setup offered something rare in the hundreds (thousands?) of shows I’ve seen…a harp. Interesting from the get-go. He commenced with a man-with-a-guitar-in-a-chair acoustic number that made it readily apparent why he was opening for Thurston Moore…sparsely syncopated chords (that would normally be considered rhythm guitar) filled-in with vocals that alternated between inflections reminiscent of Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, but with a hint of the discordance common within Moore’s work.
Vile used multiple acoustic guitars (for their different tunings one would suppose) to strum and pick his way through meandering songs intended for those with both an attention span and an appreciation of the complexity that can be found within minimalism. Music for Rothko fans, perhaps. Vile possesses the sort of wistful emotionalism that makes Daniel Johnston‘s compositions so sweetly disheartening and veritably heart-wrenching. This isn’t for everyone, or every mood, but its delivery is undeniably personal and unquestionably authentic.
After a handful of songs, he added an electric guitar player. That gave way to the harp, and their musical interplay was a definite highlight. The set came to a satisfying close with all three finally on stage simultaneously (yes, this was a drummer-less set, but with rhythm guitar as lead guitar, the lack of a rhythm section was irrelevant).
As his set finished, the younger aspects of the crowd dispersed a bit. This shocked me… Were these Pitchfork-fed masses aware that they were about to skip out on a chance to see a living legend known for incendiary performances? Kurt Vile is a candle to Thurston Moore’s kleig lights. Moore is a friggin’ guitar god. A genius. The partisans that remained were an enthusiastic bunch, so good riddance to the emo kids.
Moore and his band, which included members of the other opener (Hush Amor), also took the stage without a drummer. This was not by design so much as due to an unfortunately timed call of nature, we were informed. In the interim, Moore held court and engaged the audience in a series of comedic tales of rock and roll history. Arriving in a sartorially splendid suit/skinny tie/plaid shirt combo, Moore announced their acoustic arrival by informing the audience, “We’re The Jimmy Carter Patrol.” This led to a discussion of some long-lost episode of punk rock history where apparently Jimmy Carter’s administration was raiding punk rock clubs. It was somewhat sparsely notated but Moore promised a fuller exposition of the subject at a later date. That should be interesting.
This led to an engagement with folks in the audience harboring resentment for Ronald Reagan (on the occasion of the 101st anniversary of The Gipper’s birth, no less). Moore stated his preference of Reagan to Carter, not only because Reagan didn’t raid punk clubs but also because his actions that precipitated the formation of a hardcore punk scene. That history lesson complete, Moore changed the outfit’s name yet again, declaring that they were now called “Dushku” in honor of True Lies daughter / cigarette thief, Eliza Dushku. Quite the sexy voice on that vixen, so I’ll take that moniker over anything about Jimmy Carter.
Now that that’s settled, let’s me repeat….Thurston Moore is a rock god. His nonchalant approach to his own genius only further endears his work to my auditory canals, so please forgive gushing.
As the set progressed, a warm and fuzzy feeling cropped up in a way that belied my stark sobriety. As an aside, he noted that, “We’re a soft rock band now. Soft rock is the new hardcore.” I don’t know about that, but I am quite sure that my dentist’s office has never sounded like this. Acoustic guitars were turned into distant church bells punctuating a soft-lit dream. Gentle discordance was built into a violent upheaval within the warm embrace of the sublime. And then two gin and tonics were brought to stage. And Thurston and his fellow guitarist had a chugging contest, won by the younger man. Fun times.
Between songs the audience was treated to pure anecdotal genius. Stories about an all night weed-smoking session at the Dischord House while touring with Sonic Youth in the 1980s. Stories about sleeping on Jello Biafra’s couch in San Francisco and questions about his sanity. Stories about how attending a Black Flag concert with Henry Rollins writhing on the floor while mono fuzz filled the amps inspired Lee Ranaldo to want to create an entire album of ambient mono fuzz that would sound like he was tuning. Songs about Kiss.
And then again there’s the music, in which two acoustic guitars are somehow able to achieve pure acoustic dissonance for about a three-minute stretch before stopping on a dime. Keep in mind that all this was on ACOUSTIC guitars while accompanied by the aforementioned harp, a violin and some suitably light drumming. This may not be soft rock, but it’s a long way from “noise rock,” too. Moore’s solo work is much more melodic, gently building and then releasing lushly gorgeous melodies that just make sense. And yes, dissonance can be beautiful.
As was Moore’s occasional spoken word intros to songs, an artsy indulgence that may have seen its heyday in dingy mid-‘80s New York clubs, but which did not feel anachronistic in the least. Moore’s 12-string guitar emitted Zeppelin-esque sounds that at their apex showed off a resonant orchestral flair. His ability to make musical tangents anything but tangential showcases what can be great about a jam band, but without the tedium. Executed properly, it removes you far from one’s present time and place and into an exotic netherworld.
The crowd thinned measurably, possibly due to the fact that the metro closed before the set ran its course, but Moore greeted fans remaining for the encore with the observation that the scene before him, “Smells just like the beginning of reggae.” I’m not entirely sure what that meant, but it was hilarious nonetheless. Somewhere, the Kurt Vile kids were sleeping soundly and comfortably unaware that they had just passed up the opportunity to witness a master guitarist who still operates at the highest level more than 30 years into his craft. Jackasses.
For photos of the show, check out Paste’s photo gallery.