Illustration titled "My Battle with a Leopard" by Gustav Rehberger from Coronet Magazine, September 1952
I reviewed the new John Vanderslice album earlier this week, but my Vanderslice love knows no bounds so I'm going to write about him again. He played two shows in Utah this week, and I attended the show at Club Velour with my special lady friend (who is also a big fan of the 'Slice.) The opening act was the Morning Benders from Berkeley, a bedroom-project-turned-band fronted by Chris Chu - they were pretty good, with a shoegaze/Neil Young guitar sound and some pretty good pop hooks. I think what we heard was not too close to the home recordings of the first Morning Benders album, but they have a new album called Big Echo coming out later this year, and the songs from that record sounded pretty good live.
After the Morning Benders finished their set, it was only a couple minutes before John Vanderslice took the stage. The thing about Vanderslice is that he's a friendly, no-nonsense guy, and he won't make the audience wait while he sits around backstage. He's onstage with a smile as soon as possible, talking about how we're all going to hang out and have a gelato-and-Beastie-Boys dance party after the gig. He takes song requests on the Internet and from the crowd - he's even been known to let audience members come up and play on songs (that didn't happen at this show, luckily). He immediately launched into "White Plains", one of my favorites, and I was impressed right away with his new backing band. It's always a challenge when a solo songwriter has to assemble a new touring band, and in my experience, Vanderslice's touring musicians have been hit or miss. But these guys were as good as the band he was touring with the first time I saw him play, and that band included longtime collaborator Scott Solter.
Keyboardist Ian and lead guitarist Sylvian were especially impressive, and the drummer Matthias was better than you'd guess from his porn-mustache-and-wifebeater look. The songs sounded great, and he chose a setlist of mostly upbeat numbers (with a couple exceptions, including a comedic super-slow rendition of "Angela" from Pixel Revolt that he played as part of a running gag about Ian being hopped up on caffeine.) The set was heavy on material from his two poppiest albums, Cellar Door and the new one, which was just what I wanted to hear. The band could even pull off some songs that I've never seen Vanderslice try to do live, like the pretty "Promising Actress" and Pixel Revolt's "Plymouth Rock". Before playing the latter song, Vanderslice admitted that it was one that he himself had trouble playing the song and that they'd only rehearsed it a few times during soundcheck. It didn't sound like he thought the band could pull it off, but before too long he was beaming as the band pushed the interweaving melodies to an impressive and note-perfect crescendo. "Plymouth Rock" is not a favorite of mine, and the chorus doesn't really have much of a hook, but this band made it sound as good as anything Vanderslice has recorded. Here's the setlist from the show:
Vanderslice played for over an hour and then did a nice four-song encore. As soon as the show ended, Paul's Boutique started to play over the PA, announcing the start of the post-gig dance party. Vanderslice seemed excited to get down to the merch table to chat with the fans, but he was immediately accosted by a girl with a camera who wanted him to stay onstage for an impromptu photo session. As we left the venue, he was gamely assuming some pretty cheesy poses and smiling for the camera, probably wondering where to get gelato for a couple hundred people at 11:30 at night. Sometimes it's not easy to be the nicest man in rock and roll.
"Plymouth Rock" by John Vanderslice