From a boxy, curved sofa one can take in the impressive dimensions, sweeping staircase and velvet ropes of the University of Bristol Student Union lobby until well into a support slot. When did SUs get so opulent? At the end of a long week, banal musings about the surprising non-stickiness of the surroundings are as good a way as any to wait for some questions about lists to be answered. For instance, which is ‘the’ list? Is your correspondent on any list other than the recent Morrissey one that induced headaches from re-reading sentences in the vain search of a point? Of course, having made the choice to be an item of grocery, there are no complaints; just a complex system combining thumb twiddling and floor tile counting designed to keep the eyelids up while the gracious staff do what they have to do.
Kurt Vile may also prove soporific. Such is the casualness of his approach one could imagine him believing panache to be a type of cheese. But live, he’s charming, balancing studious quiet with class clowning in his movements. His drawl is punctuated with cracks and audible grins. To begin with, his guitar and vocal, along with drums like monolithic slabs, overwhelm the flanking Fenders. His lead line on ‘pretty pimpin’ is like a twisty phone cord around fingers: strong and tight, yet smooth and playful while he speaks into your ear. That conversational ordinariness is a big part of his appeal. The best songs on recent album b’lieve i’m goin down are as intimate as a conversation with a friend in which the big questions gnaw at the edge of the everyday. Demand to see him is enough that this gig was moved to the 1200 capacity Anson Rooms from the smaller Marble Factory, but Vile hasn’t fully adapted his show to accommodate his growing popularity. It’s a tough thing to do: many artists become popular because their music speaks directly to listeners until there are so many of them that the close-miked and personal have to be traded in for the rousing and communal.
The noise and strong melodies early in his set go some way to resolving this. However, from a series of loud cracks and Vile’s own requests to turn the drums down it’s clear this isn’t entirely by design. Techs scurry around to fix the sound, after which a ponderousness sets in. Midway through the rhythm section take a break and the pace drops to a standstill. The full band return to partially recover the momentum, but by then the problems are clear. Vile’s impressive guitar playing is bound to a plodding mid-tempo undercarriage. He could so easily be cosmic but he overall effect is noodly. The lack of variety isn’t helped by the narrow emotional range of his singing.
At least the Violators briefly get off the ground. By the time I got into the venue, Lushes should have been approaching the peak of their set. Instead, their music sounds like it’s trying to drag itself out of an enervated, depressive fug. There’s a shrug, a squall and now the guitarist is chanting repetitively about his dinner. Some shouty bits at the end are too little, too late; the bar queue snakes back to the stairs, many needing a pick me up from the narcoleptic haze.
On an evening that reaches yet falls short, the nonchalant attitude of both bands could come across as half-heartedness. The Violators initially fizz, but on this occasion, they quickly flatten. However, the recent album is a grower and I’m interested to hear how they adapt to the challenge of their quickly growing audience.