While I like to think that I have remained on the cutting edge of new music, I do find myself seeing a handful of artists time and time again. I first time I saw John Vanderslice it was with his band MK Ultra in 1999 at The Bottleneck. I paid no heed to him at the time. Then years later, while driving through the Rocky Mountains, I was stunned by a song I heard on University of Boulder's high-powered radio station – "Me and My 424." Since then I've seen him every chance I've gotten. While his touring band changes every time, his demeanour does not – he is, without question, the nicest man in indie rock.
Kate and I arrived just before 9:30 and rushed back to the merch booth to deliver fresh-baked cookies to John Vanderslice. As usual, he was hyper and incredibly earnest – the sort of eager sincerity that Rob Lowe has built a character around on NBC's Parks & Recreation. Judging by the number of times he hugged and gushed and re-hugged upon receiving the goodies, you'd think the poor boy doesn't get to eat on tour. Maybe that's his secret – his slim build and blonde mop haven't changed a bit in the last twelve years.
As advertised, at 9:30 Seattle's Damien Jurado sat on stage holding his acoustic guitar. Although Jurado performs in a variety of settings, with a variety of of players, for this tour he was joined solely by vocalist Melodie Knight who sat on a high bar stool just to Jurado's left. For the first five-or-so songs in the set, Knight added her punchy vocals to Jurado's low, quiet, and gentle tenor, blending and pushing each other in a way that recalled the first Leonard Cohen records – particularly "So Long, Marianne." Coincidently, Jurado confessed to sounding a bit like Cohen or Bill Callahan as he continued to recover from a cold. While he may have been a bit more gruff than usual, there was certainly no room for complaint as the duo blended wonderfully for a quiet, powerful reading of Jurado's "Window."
Jurado went it alone for the second half of his set, allowing the audience to focus on his considerable finger-picking skills or the rattling open chords played on his guitar. It also allowed him a chance to push his normally easy voice to something much closer to its full volume. The highlight of this portion of the set was the poignant "What Were The Chances" containing the couplets "Does your husband know I call you sweetheart? / Does he know that I call you at all? / It's not like you're cheating we're only meeting / In hotels and not your home."
Jurado had barely cleared the stage when John Vanderslice began his own set. As with Damien Jurardo, a live John Vanderslice performance could entail any number of accomplices. For this tour, Vanderslice brought along multi-instrumentalist Jason Slota – who not only played drums, but also Moog and glockenspiel. Occasionally he did these things simultaneously. This feat impressed the effusive Vanderslice so much that he halted the show on several occasions to prepare the audience for a particularly interesting (to himself more than the audience I'm afraid) manoeuvre that Slota would soon perform. While Vanderslice's timing in this wasn't always right (he had to be reminded that the dexterous act that he had just announced wasn't in the next song, but rather in "Kookaburra" much deeper in the set list), the joy he finds in life is contagious.
This playful banter (Vanderslice reports that he has no shame) moved the audience from respecting silent observers of Damien Jurado, to active participants. Participation is important to Vanderslice – so important that any fan can contact Vanderslice before a performance if she or he would like to provide vocals, play a song with the band, or "trigger that cool squiggly sound in 'Underneath the Leaves'" – more on the last one later.
Throughout the night Vanderslice switched between electric and acoustic guitars, with the former receiving a hefty dose of sonic manipulation. Lots of atmosphere – and occasional melody – were provided by the keyboards played by either Vanderslice or Slota. Additionally, Vanderslice was able to control sequences and samples via a foot pedal. This included the "cool squiggly" noise mentioned above – a noise that Vanderslice explained was particularly hard to time correctly. Maybe that's why he attempts to recruits others for this task in every city.
Nine of the songs from Vanderslice's 75-minute-long, eighteen-song set were culled from his mid-career albums (those released between 2004-2007), with only three songs from the just-released White Wilderness album that he was touring in support of. Only his 2000 debut album was ignored entirely.
After closing with "Underneath the Leaves," Slota grabbed a floor tom and headed into the crowd while Vanderslice picked up his acoustic guitar, stepped to the front of the stage away from microphone, and urged the crowd to circle around him. For the first song of this not-an-encore encore, a fan-held boombox provided the backing synthesizer tracks for "Thule Song"; however the next two songs were performed by only Vanderslice, Slota, and an unofficial chorus of singers that had arrived at the show expecting to be only passive audience members. Although there were some cries of disappointment when Vanderslice announced that he would not play an official encore, those spirits were quickly lifted when Vanderslice announced that everyone was invited to the dance party immediately after the show. True to his word, Vanderslice's soundman started the bass pumping just as Vanderslice's guitar rang out the final tones of "White Dove."
Kate and I didn't stick around long after the set – although it would have been nice to chat with Vanderslice, he was already deep in conversation with another fan, and another four were queued up. Between these conversations, signing every album sold, and the dance party, I suspect that he closed the Record Bar down that night. Besides, I already had plans to see in him again in two weeks when I'm back in Connecticut.