Kurt Vile came out onstage at the Ottobar with a mostly-full bottle of red wine, waved and mouthed "hello" real casually, took a swig, and then set the bottle down next to his pedals. He and the Violators—his backing band of drummer Kyle Spence, keyboardist/guitarist Rob Laakso, and bassist/guitarist/saxophonist Jesse Trbovich—got in place, as Vile's banjo twang led us into 'I'm an Outlaw.'
Friday night's whole hour-and-a-half set was seamless—smooth transitions between songs, minimal banter—which is not totally unexpected. Vile's stage presence feels almost neurotically chill, a feeling that's present in his lyrics, too. Even when he describes surreal confusion or doldrums, he finds a way to lighten it, with humor and with the music itself—like in the 10-minute, thick and fuzzy cheery-dark 'Goldtone': "Sometimes when I get in my zone, you'd think I was stoned/ But I never as they say, touched the stuff/ I might be adrift, but I'm still alert/ Concentrate my hurt into a gold tone."
Much of his music feels self-aware, poking fun at himself for this chill-guitar-dude vibe that he puts out (like in 'That’s Life, tho': "When I go out, I take pills to take the edge off/ Or to just take a chillax, man, forget about it/ Just a certified badass out for a night on the town"). But he's not being self-deprecating; he's playing with seriousness and humor.
His gentle self-acceptance made it easier to be at this show alone. Not that it was hard to be there alone, and I guess that's partly because whenever I listen to Kurt Vile I happen to be alone, or, as I wrote in a blurb about "b'lieve i'm goin down..." for our Top 10 non-local albums of 2015, when I'm out walking around: "You want something that won't bum you out or amp you up too much, but gets you thinking about how beautiful, ragged, interesting, complicated, and simple life can be all at once." There's not much ground-breaking revelation happening, and that's just fine.
After strumming the last bit of each song, Vile would take the guitar off and raise it up over his head and nod a little bit, more like a gracious "thanks" than anything showy or self-satisfied. He might have spent a cumulative 30 seconds of the show talking or introducing a song: "Hate to be a downer. . . psych" he deadpanned after the seven-minute morose 'That's Life, tho (almost hate to say)' before heading into 'Goldtone.'
I didn't really care about the lack of audience engagement, or I wasn't surprised by it. He was here with the Violators to play the songs really well—he didn't need to crack jokes to make us like him or his music more. The first part of the set clustered songs from Vile's three previous releases—2009's "Childish Prodigy," 2011's "Smoke Ring For My Halo," and 2013's "Wakin on a Pretty Daze"—with some of the more pop-y songs off "b'lieve" ('Outlaw,' 'Dust Bunnies,' 'Pretty Pimpin'). Then the band stretched out the middle of the set with the longer, more meditative 'Wheelhouse,' 'That’s Life tho,' and 'Goldtone,' letting the summery morning jam 'Wakin on a Pretty Day' and the enveloping, drunk at 4 a.m.-version of "Born in the U.S.A."-era Bruce nod 'Freak Train' pick up some of the energy before the end.
"Give me a break/ How much does it really take/ Get my head out of here" he sang in the acoustic solo of 'Peeping Tomboy' during the encore. When stress or anxiety can keep me inside the house for a weekend, I appreciate these moments where that doesn't affect me so much, when I can get out of my own head. And Vile's music gets me on that path—and it's what stood out to me especially that night: how his music communicates contentment and restlessness at the same time, a healthy lust for life.
After the show I walked back to my house in the cold, singing parts of songs they didn't perform. I walked slowly down 26th Street, recorded 15 seconds of distant train sounds on my phone for no reason. I'd noted before the last song that Vile's wine bottle was still half full. I had just a couple sporadic drinks this weekend and felt good about being alive, and these past couple of days I've been on this kinda dumb and blissful, haven't-slept-enough feeling, listening to KV and dancing alone in the kitchen while the water boils.