Kurt Vile & The Violators + Mess Esque @ Princess Theatre, Brisbane, 03.04.2023
By Tom McCall
It’s a sold out Monday night show at the Princess Theatre and it’s somehow the first time I’ve been there since it’s reopening as a live music/performing arts venue in 2021. It’s a nice spot with it’s 19th century architecture still going strong and a full outside bar to kill time at before the opening act.
I’d seen Kurt Vile previously on his solo Australia tour back in early 2017, which I remember as being an enjoyable, understated and laidback folk set touring his then most recent album B’Lieve I’m Goin Down. It was pleasant enough music to see live but it didn’t make a massive impression on me and I assumed I wouldn’t have much interest in spending time keeping up with his releases as folk/singer-songwriter type music had held such little space for me at the time. I spent years enjoying whatever I’d hear come up from his ever-growing catalogue but his work never fully clicked into becoming a favourite of mine until his latest album (watch my moves) hit me at exactly the right time early last year.
Like a lot of lyrically direct singer-songwriter artists your interest is highly dependent on liking or being intrigued by the worldview and personality of the artist themselves and Kurt’s lyrical themes of laidback reflection and working through uncertainty started to hit a chord with hitting my late 20s and coming out of the worst of the personal upheaval of the last few pandemic affected years.
It also helped that I’d since opened my mind more to stripped back, lyrical artists in the meantime. The album is a sprawling, near 80-minute encapsulation of his career to date, with a combo of hypnotic longer jams with psychedelic effects, withdrawn melancholy folk tunes and a few synth-heavy throwbacks to some of his earlier work. It’s a fantastic album that made me go back and have renewed interest in all his previous releases and I was looking forward to finally see him play alongside the Violators in a full rock band setup to run through the new material.
Opening the night was Mess Esque, a band which features Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner and Helen Franzmann of McKisko on vocals & synths, filled out with a touring bassist and drummer. I wasn’t familiar with their music beforehand but they hook me in quickly with their ultra-atmospheric dream pop sound. They’re the sort of band that’s hard to not lazily throw out words like “ethereal” when describing because they have a really intangible soothing beauty to their music that’s much more than the sum of it’s minimalist parts. Franzmann takes control of the synths which are used for long warm drones while Mick Turner plays his classic sparse, reverby guitar lines over the top. Franzmann’s vocals float over the synths and have a similar understated droning quality before she shows her range with a few songs of more animated talk-singing.
I’ve really enjoyed what I’d heard of Dirty Three and there’s definitely a similar patient building atmosphere to the songs but the more traditional rock band set-up with vocals links it more in my mind to slow, dreamy indie rock like Cat Power (who Mick has worked quite a bit with before). It’s a strong reminder for me to finally check out McKisko who I’ve only heard great things about and to explore Mess Esque’s catalogue after tonight. The set breezes by and judging by the loud applauses and cheers after each song, they’ve gone down well amongst the already near-packed crowd.
Kurt strolls casually onstage with the Violators and offers a quick “Hello, how are you going?” to the audience before tearing into “Palace of OKV in Reverse”, a hazy synth-heavy tune off his latest album. Next up is “Loading Zones”, the lively ode to his memories of debauchery back in his hometown of Philadelphia. The refrain “I park for free” is belted out by the crowd and it’s already a stark contrast to the stripped back solo set I’d seen him play 6 years ago. There’s an increased energy and intensity that Kurt and the Violators seem to be bringing in a live setting compared with the studio recordings but they still hang onto the psychedelic and hypnotic atmosphere that the recent albums have been reaching for.
It’s become a cliché when talking about Kurt Vile to reference how “chill” and nonchalant he sounds and it’s true to an extent, it’s very comforting music, but it seems to leave out how emotionally complex many of his songs are and how intricate his finger-picking guitar playing is. I think about this as he kicks off “Bassackwards” off 2018’s Bottle it In, which has recently become my favourite song of his. It has mesmerising psychedelic guitar loops that repeat throughout and complex ever-changing finger-picking guitar lines that keep it interesting across it’s 10-minute runtime. The lyrics cycle between confusion and stress at not being able to live in the present and eventually snapping back out again into clarity, a constant shift between anxiety and relief that repeats in different ways throughout the song. It’s not just a relaxing tune to chill out to but offers a lot of tension and complexity to both the lyrics and instrumentation that make sure it never gets boring or needlessly repetitive.
Midway through the set The Violators retreat and Kurt takes us through a couple of solo tunes. First up is the very melancholy early career fan favourite “Runner Ups” which was put out a dozen years ago on his break-out album Smoke Ring for My Halo. A lovely cover of John Prine’s “How Lucky” follows, which acts as a very touching tribute to the legendary late folk singer that Kurt had collaborated with to cover the song on record shortly before his passing.
The rest of the set is understandably very heavy on material from (watch my moves) with “Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)” being another set highlight. He introduces the song by letting us know that since we’ve “Let him into our home” that it’s time that he lets us into his, as the lyrics reflect on his current hometown where he recorded the album. The beautiful “I’ve been around…” chorus has been stuck in my head for days by this point and it’s one of the most affecting points of the set as he nails the longing, nostalgic feel of the studio version.
Towards the end, they pull out “Pretty Pimpin” and “Walking on a Pretty Day”, probably the two most revered and well known songs from Kurt’s catalogue, with the latter including a glorious minutes-long distorted guitar solo and instrumental jam that elicits the biggest cheer and applause of the night. They emerge quickly for the encore and deliver perfect renditions of “Like Exploding Stones” and “Cool Water” from the new album before ending on a rousing cover of Silver Jews’ “Punks in the Beerlight”, another tribute to a recently passed musical hero.
It was a fantastic show that seemed to rush by as the full band set up with the Violators helped Kurt to show the breadth of his songwriting abilities and allowed him to break into extended jams and display his underrated range as a guitarist. The quality of his underrated new material held up well with his old fan favourites and I’m definitely catching him next time he’s touring a new record.