An Intimate Evening with Kurt Vile this was billed as, but All Saints Church is huge, its gothic arches ascending into shadow, the alter a third of the building again behind the stage. Vast columns divide the floor, wooden boards hitched halfway dictating the order of the morning’s hymns, and Christ watches from every window. Little of the day’s warmth has managed to breach the stone.
It’s also full, the queue for the bar stretching back thirty people and all the seats sold out. That proves problematic for those of us with standing tickets, pushed to the edges and jostling for the few meagre views available: most of Pall Jenkins’ set has passed by before we finally find one, half-crouched between a radiator and a cold pillar and cursing, like everyone around us, whoever planned this out. As for Jenkins, what little we hear is alright: the sombre tone suits the environs well and he plays a mean saw, although little of his set lingers after he’s gone nor registers much over the pain in our backs.
Still, Kurt Vile proves an effective salve, his voice warm and his songs nostalgic: shorn of his Violators for this solo tour this is a rare opportunity to hear this material stripped back and understated, focused on just Vile’s voice and his acoustic guitar and his hazy, sprawling Americana. Not that the man himself betrays much of a sense of the occasion: clad in t-shirt and jeans he ambles onto the platform almost coyly, mumbling slightly before launching into Red Apples, his hair curtaining most of his face.
“I like to do the solo thing. It’s a challenge,” said Vile in an interview last November, but he makes this look pretty effortless, his performance nigh-on faultless and his sound rich through the hour-long set. But as it goes on an unfortunate truth emerges – that these songs need more than just him to come alive, that stripped of the expanses and the subtleties of a full band they blur all too often into a one-note of strum and vocal reverb. Musicians like Conor Oberst can get away with this because they’re principally storytellers and the narratives carry the set, but Vile’s songs are driven by texture and tone rather than meaning and that’s difficult to get across with a rhythm guitar, however immaculately – and it is immaculate – it’s being played. At points this doesn’t matter – an excellent Goldtone transcends its pared-back form to fill the room – but the homogeneity of the sound makes this a curiously disaffecting show considering the warmth and vitality of Vile’s recorded output, and the lack of crowd banter – often a staple of this kind of gig – only reinforces this.
‘It’s just the wrong venue for him’ says a guy nearby, and as sad as it is to level any kind of criticism at a building this beautiful he’s right: cold stone and Catholic orthodoxy are the wrong backdrop for this music, and hard wooden chairs and gaps behind radiators entirely the wrong places from which to consume it. Kurt Vile’s songs speak to summertime and lengthy shadows, to grass and air and dust and campfires and massive open skies – to August’s Green Man festival, basically, where he’s certain to kill. This has been nice, sure, but way too static, way too forgettable for a guy with that surname: next time we want amplifiers and tinnitus and some room to move.