A PERSUASIVE MAN John Vanderslice

The San Francisco songwriter kicks in the door. Two
cities, two shows – let’s do this.

 

BY MIKE SHANLEY & ROXANA HADADI / PHOTO BY ADAM FRIED

 

We at Blurt are
huge John Vanderslice fans. We’re so enamored of his lush-yet-catchy albums –
check out our review of his most recent album, Romanian Names, issued by the Dead Oceans label, HERE – that we
sent two reporters off to stalk him on his recent concert tour. Our man in
Pittsburgh, Mike Shanley, picked up
the trail June 9 at the Iron City’s Andy Warhol Museum, while closer to home,
Roxana Hadadi, caught his set on June 16 at the Black Cat in D.C. (Opening for
Vanderslice both nights: Swedish one-man-band The Tallest Man On Earth.) If you
get a chance to see Vanderslice, don’t pass it up. As the saying goes, he’s one
of the good ‘uns. Trust us. – The
Editors.

 

***

 

John Vanderslice,
June 9, @ Andy Warhol
Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

 

By Mike Shanley

 

John Vanderslice’s albums aren’t slick, but they possess a
certain polish, especially his latest effort, Romanian Names. Its dreamy blend of harmonies, string and horn
trimmings, keyboards, and ever-fascinating story lines has enough meat to
satiate Vanderslice fanatics.  In person,
however, the songs take on a different shape.

 

Returning to the Andy
Warhol Museum,
Vanderslice and his new quintet presented some alternate views of his material,
and the new perspective started at the top of the set. Whereas the studio
version of “Forest Knolls” has a synthetic, metronomic beat that created
suspense and interacted with understated keyboards and some well-placed
saxophone accents, the tension reached new levels in person. The band evoked
the sound of a door that was about to be kicked in. Drummer Matthias Bossi
pounded his floor tom for the duration of the four-minute song with no
variance. Vanderslice and Sylvain Carton filled in for the saxes with some
nasty guitar leads.

 

Rather than detract, approaches like this brought out
aspects of the songs that aren’t always apparent on the albums. With
Vanderslice, this can definitely act as a mark in his favor since he creates
moods through arrangements and words that can make one of those aspects
overshadow another. The yearning quality of “Tablespoon of Codeine” was
bolstered by a heavier rock sound, again courtesy of the two guitarists. Ian
Bjornstad, the only holdover from last year’s band, really orchestrated the
melody of “Plymouth Rock,” the first-person account of an early American
settler who’s been left to die after being brutalized by American Indians. Only
during “Tremble and Tear” did things fall short, when the song’s high harmonies
(from Bossi, no less) got buried under the acoustic guitars.

 

For all the dark, occasionally apocalyptic lyrical fodder in
his work, Vanderslice is anything but a frail, paranoid conspiracy theorist. On
the contrary, he’s probably one of the most congenial, good natured bandleaders
in all of indie rock. A master at between-song banter, he repeatedly made
reference to a new obsession, a video he had seen of a frenetic dancer at the
Sasquatch Festival. At one point, he brought Carton – a Frenchman raised in Georgia
– to the mike to introduce a song in a southern drawl, only to be embarrassed
when the guitarist spoke more like Maurice Chevalier than Jimmy Carter.

 

Always one to get closer to his audience, Vanderslice
repeated the success of last year’s encore by leading the entire audience into
the lobby of the Warhol for a few songs. Free from the confines of a mike
stand, he stomped around like a matador as he sung “Nikki Oh Nikki,”
accompanied by Bossi’s floor tom, bassist James Riotto’s beer bottle and
harmonies from Bjornstad and Carton. When the lobby’s acoustics proved to be
too boomy, the pied piper led his flock around the corner to a gallery for the
final song of the night.

 

The Tallest Man on Earth opened the evening with a solo
acoustic set. Swedish singer Kristian Matsson is actually more of a regulation
size fellow, standing closer to 5’5″. Comparisons to Bob Dylan (seen in local
print prior to the show) also seemed a bit inaccurate, aside from
instrumentation. In truth, Matsson sounded more like the lovechild of Tom Waits
and Tim Buckley, with a boisterous delivery that maintained some romantic
qualities. His set got rather limited as it proceeded, relying on delicate
finger-picking on two guitars that both seemed to have the capo on the same
fret. But his lyrical flair, which made him sound as American as any pithy folk
singer, kept the momentum going.

 

***

 

John Vanderslice June
16 @ the Black Cat, Washington,
DC

 

By Roxana Hadadi

 

John Vanderslice would be the coolest soccer dad ever. With
his supremely laid-back attitude, charmingly pleasant crowd banter (topics
discussed included shivs and how much he pays his backing band) and
ever-present striped polo and neutral khakis (we swear we saw him wear the same
thing while touring with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats in March, he’s
like a modern-day Danny Tanner. Just add Uncle Jesse’s musical talent, Uncle
Joey’s comedic timing and Bob Saget’s cursing abilities and you’ve created one
thoroughly entertaining, reliably awesome performer.

 

And who cares if Vanderslice is a repetitive dresser? At the
Black Cat in Washington
on June 16, he delivered a markedly different set than the one at Sixth and I Synagogue
in March
, and the variations weren’t just electric vs. acoustic. This time
around, Vanderslice brought in the full band, performed numerous songs from his
latest album, Romanian Names, and
indulged in a whole lot of jamming, effectively producing a solid, satisfyingly
complete set that debuted both new material (including a song from the
seven-track Moon Colony Bloodbath EP
that Vanderslice and Darnielle created together) and revisited old favorites.
Though the crowd was small (the Black Cat’s Mainstage, which has a capacity of
about 700, was about a third full), they definitely left satisfied (and maybe
even with a snack, considering that Vanderslice offered to share a blueberry
pie that a fan baked for him with the rest of the audience).

 

But before it was time for indie rock and baked goods,
Swedish bluegrass and folk singer Kristian Matsson – or, more commonly known by
his moniker, The Tallest Man on Earth – took the stage. Though obviously not
tall (in fact, Matsson’s petite figure and James Dean-esque looks best bring
the word “wee” to mind), the singer-songwriter made up for it with a voice much
bigger than his compact, Prince-like body and with a set of 13 skin-crawlingly
intense songs, mainly from his 2008 debut, Shallow
Grave
. Matsson started his acoustic set (he swapped between two guitars
during his 45 minutes, and that was it when it came to instruments) with “I
Won’t Be Found,” Shallow Grave‘s
opener, and delivered poetic song after poetic song, weaving nursery tale-like
narratives with a gritty, bluesy intensity that brings to mind other neo-folk
musicians like William Elliott Whitmore.

 

Though each song lasted only between two or three minutes,
Matsson also filled his set with lots of playing to the audience, such as
getting up in fans’ personal spaces (example: his crotch in this reporter’s
face), stamping his feet and gazing out into the crowd with a pouty, brooding
gaze. But his fans (mostly girls, unsurprisingly) ate it up, freaking out the
most during “The Gardener” (a longer song about Matsson lying to his love,
killing those who tried to expose his fraud and eventually “dancing through the
garden” growing over those murdered bodies), “The Sparrow and the Medicine”
(during which a fangirl very uncomfortably yelled, “I think we should go out
sometime” and made the whole crowd awkwardly fidgety) and a cover of Bob
Dylan’s “Moonshiner,” a folk song about “if whiskey don’t kill me/ Then I don’t
know what will.” And then, after kissing the hands of those in the front row,
Matsson was gone – enter, stage left, Vanderslice.

 

Right on time (Vanderslice and the band started things
promptly at 10:02 p.m.), they launched into “Tablespoon of Codeine,” which
transformed into a jazzy, spacey number thanks to the lush keyboards and synths
provided by Ian Bjornstad, and immediately after came “Too Much Time,” quite
possibly the best track on Romanian Names because of its ethereal, otherworldly quality. Though that lushness wasn’t
entirely present live (thanks to lots of reverb), the song still passed the
awesome test, as Vanderslice’s vocals stayed perfectly clear – especially
during the calmly hopeless chorus, “I’ve got too much time/ Too much time gone
by, and I can’t find you if I tried.”

 

And after “White
Plains,” from 2004’s Cellar Door, Vanderslice decided to bring it out: The pie. “Someone
baked us a blueberry pie, and I’d like to know who that person was,” he asked
the audience while holding up the wrapped-in-cellophane treat. After the
responsible party yelled out an affirmation from the back of the crowd,
Vanderslice’s next move was… keeping the pie within arm’s reach on top of
Bjornstad’s keyboards. “I’m going to put it here, to remind us of our reward,”
he joked, before going into “D.I.A.L.O.,” which traded its studio crispness for
a more funky, freeform sound; the achingly lovelorn “Trance Manual,” which was
just as pining live as it is on 2005’s Pixel
Revolt
, and “They Won’t Let Me Run,” which Vanderslice and the group
decided to play instead of the scheduled “When It Hits” because the drummer
started playing the wrong song. “We’re totally flexible,” Vanderslice
reassuringly told the crowd, who were more than happy to hear the older song.

 

After that came more mention of the pie (Vanderslice: “We
should organize some paper plates or plastic forks or something”); a couple
solo songs (the depressing “Romanian Names” and the fantastic “Lucifer Rising,”
from the Vanderslice/Darnielle Moon
Colony Bloodbath
EP and including lines such as “Call me John the Ripper/
Tearing at your skin/ One day I’ll pay for this/ For now, just let me in”); and
tons of other Vanderslice-led hijinks, such as borrowing a fan’s camera to take
pictures of Bjornstad and the pie, leading a clap-along and sharing stories
about the group’s trip to the National History Museum earlier that day.

 

And the music – which developed more and more into trippy,
distortion-heavy impromptu jams during and in between songs such as “Forest
Knolls,” “Angela” and “Pale Horse” – kept the fans happy, especially when
Vanderslice and Co. descended into the crowd for “Keep the Dream Alive.” By
that point, the enamored crowd would do anything Vanderslice asked for –
especially if that included gathering around him, brandishing cell phones (and
a few lighters that were hastily closed after warnings from Black Cat
employees) and singing along. He’s a persuasive man, that Vanderslice.

 

[Photo Credit: Adam Fried]

 

 

 

 

 

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