BY DAVE ALLEN John Vanderslice has earned a reputation for producing clean, well-mannered recordings with smart, cerebral lyrics that stack up favorably against the best American short stories of the last ten years. The I’s of his songs are so richly drawn and engaged in such diverse, age-of-terrorism pursuits — patrolling the corridors at Gitmo, for example, or denouncing 9/11 as a hoax to a reporter — as to evoke modern literature in verse-chorus form. Live, though, he dispenses with tidiness. Rather than attempt to replicate every note, crackle and bit of fuzz of his studio work, Vanderslice has assembled a band that really rips shit up, and his show at Johnny Brenda’s demonstrated brawn over brains to powerful effect.
Booming drums boosted the moderate tempos of “Tablespoon of Codeine” and “Too Much Time,” with Vanderslice and a second guitarist turning the end of the former into a surprising welter of feedback. By the time the band kicked up the loping tempo of “White Plains” close to a gallop, it was clear reinvention would rule the night. Where delicate strings chimed in the studio version of “White Plains,” from 2002’s “Cellar Door,” stinging guitar and synths played on stage, egging on Vanderslice’s tale of a middle-aged wanderer trying to stay clean while plagued by “the old devils.”
Other delicate-on-record tracks were similarly beefed-up. “Trance Manual,” a delicate tale of seduction, took on a hard edge, as did “When It Hits My Blood,” a crime-laden lament whose doleful chorus closes with the line, “I’m the son of a flower that grows in Afghani blood.” It could be nonsense spun out by the song’s “I,” a drug user, but Vanderslice spins it into a statement of causality: it’s bloodshed elsewhere in the world that enables the life I lead.
A mid-concert acoustic set dialed back the intensity and paved the way for some tongue-in-cheek humor. “Scorpio Rising,” from an album recorded with the Mountain Goats and titled “Moon Colony Bloodbath,” made reference to “John the Ripper,” which Vanderslice sang with the same straight face with which he made mention of a concept album about “murder on the moon.”
The second half drew heavily from the recently-released “Romanian Names,” with few of the songs catching fire the way the first half did. Older material – an aching “Angela,” and a stomping rendition of “They Won’t Let Me Run,” a tale of thwarted ambition in a small town – generated both singalongs and speculations about what new twist he’d introduce next. Intriguingly, the new drum hook on “Run” fell somewhere between the intro to Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and James Brown’s long-ago efforts to give the drummer some; it was itchily syncopated and irresistible.
Vanderslice later asked, “Can we play a song not on the setlist? Can we play ‘Exodus Damage’?” as if his band would refuse. Hardly. This post-9/11 anthem, with its mash-up of militarist paranoia with “dance dance revolution” and cries of “I’m ready for the end,” never sounded more desperate.
Perhaps coincidentally, a pair of horse-related songs closed the set. “Fetal Horses,” from “Romanian Names,” and “Pale Horse,” a setting of a Percy Shelley’s poem “Mask of Anarchy.” The former bobbed and chimed, while the latter snapped with a distorted guitar hook and curt, almost snarled singing. Rather than end with Shelley’s arch pessimism, Vanderslice and band took to the floor for an all-acoustic love-in on “Keep the Dream Alive.”
Opener Kristian Matsson, AKA The Tallest Man on Earth, was acoustic, too, but with a gruffy, reedy voice he paired with an ironclad, full-speed-ahead strum. He growled, belted and emoted over some impressively speedy finger-picking on both six- and twelve-string guitars. Despite his rasping delivery, the diminuitive Swede’s voice never betrayed him, though a slow, minor-key number, “Where Do My Bluebird Fly,” nearly derailed a largely upbeat set. After a quick tuning adjustment, Matsson delivered the promised “happy ending” with a hollered-to-the-heavens version of “King of Spain.” Never mind that he’s Swedish; no one could doubt his royal ambitions.
Tablespoon of Codeine
Too Much Time
When It Hits My Blood
Scorpio Rising (solo acoustic)
(another song – also acoustic)
Tremble and Tear
They Won’t Let Me Run
Sunken Union Boat
Acoustic jam on the floor:
Keep the Dream Alive