“Don’t know much about history,” Kurt Vile sang in his opening number, “Dust Bunnies,” Tuesday night at the Pabst Theater. Indeed, despite the smattering of “I Voted” stickers on lapels throughout the crowd, Vile gave no indication that he was aware of Wisconsin’s first against-the-grain presidential primary vote since the 1980s. Pandering to whatever political fervor may have been in the air would’ve been an easy way to rouse some excitement, but Vile and his band The Violators chose to let their music do the talking, pandering instead to the thick haze of vaporized THC that was definitely in the air. Maybe this lulled everyone into a false sense of boredom, or maybe it was just a boring rock show.
Vile’s guitar tech brought him a banjo for the second tune of the night, “I’m An Outlaw,” which proved to be one of the few notable deviations from a very unvaried night of music. The odd part was that even the studio version of this song, from Vile’s 2015 release b’lieve i’m goin down… conjures more dynamic range than these Violators could manage on this night. “Thanks, you guys. You’re beautiful. I think. Just kiddin’. I know you are,” Vile quipped after the song. Um, thanks?
Few artists of the current millennium have garnered more critical acclaim than Vile; his rambling, deadpan psych-rock is the perfect gateway for middle-aged rock dudes wanting to feel current, and most will find a lot of relatable sentiment in his combination of self-deprecating soul-searching and blunt romanticism. The trouble is that the relatively mellow tone of Vile’s newer material doesn’t exactly translate to a stimulating live experience, to the point that it reveals a lack of inventiveness in his songwriting and arranging skills.
Whereas on past tours, The Violators have been known to at least muster up massive walls of noise to enhance the material (particularly during guitarist Steve Gunn’s brief stint with the group in 2013), the current roster seemed content to play minimally and with zero emotion, trusting Vile to exude all the enthusiasm. Longtime cohort Jesse Trbovich and Rob Laakso swapped guitar and bass duties throughout the show as if anyone could tell the difference; Trbovich actually walked offstage during the beginning of “Wheelhouse” and strolled back nonchalantly and plugged back in toward the end of it. No one seemed to notice that he’d been absent.
Indeed, the most engaging portion of the show was Vile’s two-song solo interlude, featuring “Kidding Around” and “Stand Inside.” Given that neither of these songs have been staples on the current tour, it’s plausible that the first few gigs were so monotonous that Vile decided he needed to spice things up by ditching the band for a few minutes. He’s not a powerful crooner or anything, but the simplicity of his naked voice and an acoustic guitar proved far more captivating than anything involving the other three musicians.
The band returned for a few more songs after the solo portion, but they actually seemed somewhat invigorated for the end of the set. “Wakin On A Pretty Day,” “KV Crimes” and “Freak Train,” though still stuck at the same lethargic tempo as everything else, felt relatively fresh, like an upgrade from Hell Freezes Over-era Eagles to, say, a Tom Petty show circa 2013. Following “Wild Imagination,” probably the least exciting possible set-closer in Vile’s repertoire, his guitar tech came out and took his guitar, freeing up his hands to say thanks and goodnight before he walked offstage. He then came out empty-handed for the encore and waited to be served another guitar for “Peeping Tomboy.”
The highlight of the night in terms of the full band, without question, was the finale: a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Downbound Train,” featuring Trbovich wailing on saxophone and some obvious glee from all members of the band for literally the first time all night. It may have been an off night, or maybe there were unspoken circumstances affecting the musicians’ moods, but their energy during the encore served to highlight how listless everyone but Vile himself had seemed during the rest of the show. At least they sent everyone home with a memorable final moment.