Live Review: John Vanderslice @ Schubas 10/8/05
No Caffeine Required By Robyn Detterline On Saturday night John Vanderslice stopped by Schubas in support of his fifth full length, Pixel Revolt, a delicate effort that has grown on me slow as a fungus. For the past week I‘ve been coming back to these tunes like I would an album that comforted me during desperate times some years ago. Each track flows into the next with a beautiful cohesion known by few artists nowadays. In a world of indie rock where we have on one end neurotic, Ritalin-deprived acts, and on the other those that like to pretend to be despondent and dependent upon Prozac, Vanderslice falls not in between but outside of the spectrum. Since his debut in 2000 he’s refrained from being a part of any particular scene or style, and herein lies both his downfall and his genius. There are moments when a Vanderslice song fades into the background, lost to your stockpile of music that does nothing particularly for you either way. He can be frustratingly insipid. There are other moments when the beauty of his understated folk-pop tunes shines, drawing your attention and beckoning you back, such as on “Farewell Transmission” when the gorgeous timber of Vanderslice’s smooth voice combines with crushing lyrics. There’s also “Exodus Damage,” perhaps the most sweetly laidback song of nihilism ever written. In “Plymouth Rock” the musical complexity is so foundational you barely recognize it exits. But turn up the volume and you’ll catch the splendor of scraped acoustic strings layered over electronic loops and drifting ambiance. So going into the show I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was a little concerned that that the vibe would be so calm and Vanderslice so tidy that I’d be yawning incessantly. But it didn’t take long for my worries to dissipate, and ultimately I was treated to one of the most charming performances I have ever seen. The show began disjointedly with openers The Double. They’re native New Yorkers and it shows, as they sounded like a loud, raucous mix of Joy Division and Guided By Voices. Schubas can only handle so much synth and distortion and feedback till it all turns to muck. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy their set. It’s just not what I was expecting. After being deafened by The Double (Come on now, who really thinks to bring ear plugs to a John Vanderslice show?) the crowd mumbled and waited for Vanderslice and his band to set up. I looked around and realized that, at 24, I may have been the youngest person in attendance. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many shorthairs at a show. I was the only person there whose hair fell in her eyes. Boy did I feel pretentious! At 11:30 Vanderslice and company began with Pixel Revolt’s opener, “Letter to the East Coast.” The track is drum-less and Vanderslice, along with bassist David Broecker and Moog man Ian Bjornstad huddled around the front of the stage, playing modestly and setting the tone for an affable and intimate performance. On “Plymouth Rock” drummer Dave Douglas joined in, along with the clapping crowd. This song performed live highlighted that subtle complexity often overlooked in Vanderslice’s music. Whereas the recorded track holds all those light electronic goodies, the live version was much heavier on the bass and drum end. For many songs it took hearing them played live to realize how much substance there is to this music. Although the keyboard was passed from band member to band member throughout the show, they could only recreate so much electronic landscape on the stage. But the band made up for this lack by prolonging the instrumental portions to certain songs. This worked most effectively on “Angela,” which ended with this cool little stretch of spacey Moog. Overall this song was a highlight for me, because I’ve never seen someone sing so passionately about a dead bunny. I’d seen pictures of Vanderslice before but I wasn’t expecting him to be so cute and silly. He reminded my of a younger, slightly more animated version of my high school band teacher and I just wanted to give him a big hug. I hadn’t expected him to be such a bouncy, happy little guy. The show consisted of a fairly even mix of songs from all of Vanderslice’s releases, and also a nice combination of sounds, from the gritty bar-band lounge of “CRC7173, Affectionately,” to the floating “New Zealand Pines,” to the pop rock “Me and My 424.” Each tune was delivered tightly and enthusiastically. I didn’t yawn once. At the end of the main set we were given a special treat when Peter Hughes of the Mountain Goats was invited onstage to lead in the clapping for “Pale Horse.” Preceding the encore Vanderslice mused about what bands were supposed to do at Schubas at such a moment, seeing as there’s no backstage to where the group can disappear. He decided that going outside was silly, and the band didn’t make any sort of pretense of exiting. “Just pretend we’re not here,” he said, at which command our already eager cheers exploded into a frenzy. But even though we were laughing, our eruption was no charade. It was an honest display of affection and appreciation for this wonderfully soft voice in modern rock.