Kurt Vile Brings The Cool Water To A Sizzling London

Kurt Vile, Philadelphia’s psych-pop master guitarist and singer, recently played the first of a two-night show at Camden’s KOKO with his long-serving backing band The Violators. The American guitarist and singer was previously the lead guitarist in The War on Drugs, before beginning his solo career in 2008.

Kurt Vile and the Violators @ Koko

Kurt Vile (Dnieper Cruz)
Kurt Vile (Dnieper Cruz)

They were supported by Liverpool duo King Hannah, who delivered a blistering set including Crème brûlée and The Moods That I Get In. “Thanks for coming out early to say hi. Insane to open for Kurt Vile” said lead singer Hannah Merrick, as the lights bounced off the revolving disco ball to create a dreamy scarlet haze. The band recently released a haunting cover of Madonna’s Like a Prayer complete with pulsing synths and scratchy guitars, with the aim to “take a song by such an iconic artist and drag it into the world of King Hannah”. They did, brilliantly, and the live version seeped gloriously under the (rather sweaty) skin of the crowd. 

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It was a warm and balmy evening in NW1 and KOKO’s labyrinthine passages were packed with a sell-out crowd. It was a challenge to stand still, even for a brief moment, before being moved on with a polite ‘excuse me” from someone trying to get past. Not a problem though; this fits perfectly with the transitory vibe that Kurt and his music exude; a sense of travelling forward with no urgency, no real destination or need to worry where it all might lead.

The set kicked off with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’s classic road song The Trip to Pirates Cove, an artist and band whose music Kurt has been likened to along with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. It was cut short as Kurt and the band emerged from the shadows and took the stage against the backdrop of a striking mural which nodded to the latest release, the 2022 album (watch my moves).

“Thank you. I love you”, said Kurt shyly with eyes lowered, his face partially hidden by a glorious mane of long, wavy hair. As he kicked off proceedings with the expansive Palace of OKV in Reverse the crowd morphed into a sea of appreciative head nodding as he sang about ‘dreamin’ up a storm in my soul’.  

Punk acoustic Loading Zones from 2018s Bottle It In went down a storm and when it was over he said, “Thanks a lot, we love you” before heading into Bassackwards from the same album with just a momentary pause. It’s difficult to imagine Kurt, the purveyor of psychedelic folk, being ‘reborn from all the scorn buried deep within the psyche of my soul’ given his air of pure chill and tranquility and when the crowd parted, I had an uninterrupted glimpse of him on the stage as he changed guitars. Dressed in a t-shirt, plaid shirt and jeans, he said humbly, “How you doing? So glad to play KOKO again and to bring my friends. Thanks to King Hannah. This song is called Hey Like a Child” as he introduced the propulsive track from (watch my moves).

Check Baby from Bottle It In raised things up a notch and pumped up the laid-back crowd who eagerly joined in with the lyrics. Kurt’s voice can shift seamlessly from deadpan spoken word to soothing and melodic and, here, to gnarly as he let out a strident roar on  “She got a real kick to her. Yeah just like balls to the balls to the balls to the balls TO THE WALLS”. During Runner Ups from 2011s Smoke Ring for My Halo, the stage was suitably dark, Kurt illuminated by beams of cool blue light, and you could hear a pin drop in KOKO. Far from an uncomfortable silence, it was more a blissful hush, only broken when the crowd let out a roar of appreciation.  

Kurt is a man of few words, but when he speaks he is authentic and reflective. He’s Alright from Childish Prodigy, served as a trip down memory lane. “This track is from 11 years ago, it was new” he said, “or maybe 16 years ago” he corrected himself as he delivered on the emotional track. Listening to Flyin (Like a Fast Train) played live is like getting lost in your own dreamy universe for a while, one you’re not keen to leave in a hurry, and the thumping drum of Say the Word initiated a huge cheer from the crowd.

“So you brought me to your house, so I’m going to bring you to mine. This song is called Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)” he said before launching into one of the most memorable, ethereal tracks from (watch my moves) with its country-tinged folk edge, airy, descending slide guitar and unexpected high notes. 

After the beautifully sprawling track, Kurt thanked the crowd solemnly. “Thanks so much, we love you. Right now, I love my sweet crew. It’s all we know how to do” before introducing Wakin on a Pretty Day from 2013s Wakin on A Pretty Daze. “This song is about waking up on a pretty day, so that’s what I called it”, he deadpanned, the stage luminous in blue and magenta. It’s a deliberate but unhurried track, with a meandering guitar and chill vocals.  

The familiar, twangy guitar opening of Pretty Pimpin’ from 2015’s b’lieve i’m going down received, arguably, the biggest cheer of the night and activated a sing-along which complemented the iconic guitar twang and thumping percussion, on a track that undulates between sweet and sombre. Mostly backed by The Violators, a few of the tracks allowed Kurt some solo guitar opportunities, and on Hunchback it was trippy and hypnotic.  

“Thank you so much. You’re beautiful. You’re all very beautiful. Thanks so much for coming” he said, which had the air of a goodbye to it. Suspecting this, the whoops from the crowd became louder, more urgent, as we knew we’d soon have to vacate the introspective world of Kurt Vile for a while. “Great to be back. I love you. See you tomorrow” he said as he and the band left the stage.

No-one budged though, not one single bit. We were too hot and too drunk on the music to even contemplate leaving, so Kurt & The Violators obliged and came back. The falsetto ‘woo’ and familiar chords of the luminous Like Exploding Stones kicked off the encore, Kurt rhyming “cranium” with “pinball machine-a-mania” beautifully. Cool Water, the final track of the night, was the perfect refreshment for the beautifully warm washes of folk, indie, and psychedelia before Kurt said, “Hey, thanks so much. Thank you so much”. Just like in the lyrics of Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone), he’d been around but now, he was gone. 

It’s hard going back to reality after a Kurt Vile gig. To leave the unhurried, woozy vibe and the good, good vibes. To not long to wander with no real plan or hit the road in perpetual motion. It’s been said that Kurt can be too languid on stage, that he lacks showman quality. I completely disagree. In an often shouty and frenetic world, he’s a breath of fresh air. With an insouciant charm and humble authenticity, he lets his songs do the talking, and that’s more than enough. During the night, he said, “I should have been here two years ago. Thanks for coming back for me. Thanks for rescuing me. We need ya”. 

I’d argue that we’re the ones that need rescuing — and Kurt might just be the one who can do it.

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Review of Kurt Vile And The The Violators at KOKO on 12th June 2023 by Nicola Greenbrook. Photography by Dnieper Cruz.

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