I took my time to discover Kurt Vile. I must admit I took my time to get into The War on Drugs too. Because Kurt Vile founded and was part of The War on Drugs before he took a different path. Musically they didn’t really take different paths, let’s say they keep walking side by side, but not hand in hand.
I missed Kurt Vile set at Primavera 2011. It was impossible to watch anything. I prefer concerts. Longer sets, the audience is more concentrate (it pays for that gig), the band know you’re there for them and give its best to make you enjoy the show and come back next time.
I bought Kurt Vile latest CD, Smoke Ring For My Halo, seduced by one of those FOPP 5£ offers (it was back to 9£ last Saturday). I listened to it a lot in the weeks before this gig.
There is something in there. Actually there is a lot from a musical perspective (what other perspective a CD must have? Whatever!). From Americana to fingerpicking; intimate songs and outburst of energy provided by the presence in the studio of his touring band, The Violators.
Also there isn’t something. The impalpable thing missing. The perception of a good album that can’t break into my heart.
My personal way to get that ‘thing’ is to go to the show. I know no better way to test a musician than live. It’s not a technical comment, it’s not because I want to check if he has good skills. Kurt Vile surely have and I am not in the position to recognise them. If a musician makes some errors or can make impossible things isn’t always obvious Kurt Vile isn’t John McLaughlin, yet is an impressive guitarist. Mine is an emotional thing.
Kurt Vile concert at Koko sold-out fast. He headlined one of the NME Awards 2012 nights. A rich line-up including Real Estate and the solo project of ex Spacemen3 founder Peter Kember known as Sonic Boom.
As tradition, Live on 35mm covers one artist at a time not a gig. I won’t talk about either of the supports. It is a good thing considering I found Real Estate boring and Sonic Boom electronic noise quite pointless after the first 10 minutes.
The expectations for Kurt Vile to resurrect a night that so far had been as mediocre as the Brit Awards broadcasted on ITV simultaneously were high.
It’s about 9 PM when he came on stage with the Violators, his band. They check that all pedals and cables are ok.
Kurt Vile and his band seem to share a passion for lo-fi, analogical devices and the same hairdresser.
When everything appear to be ready they disappear. Typical. For a couple of minutes (what does happen those 2 minutes in the changing room, anyone?) until the are acclaimed back on stage for the proper start. Rites of rock.
Kurt Vile comes back solo, acoustic guitar and those long hair hiding his face. The photographers’ joy. This set has been on the road for about a year and sounds solid from the start. I don’t know very well his early material but it’s evident from the beginning that the difference tonight isn’t between present and past, rather between the intimacy of the solo moments and the explosion of energy the band provides when it joins him.
Three guitars + drums without a bass player. Hard times for bassists. Even the softer ballads become electrifying rides. Guitars don’t play the same chords, they either overlap or run after each other relentless.
When Vile is with the Violators, he concentrates more on the singing. His guitar take a break, it gives more space to the other two. Vile instead reveals a deep, multifaceted voice which isn’t always obvious from the record. The balance works at perfection. One of those things I wanted to see live, checked.
When he is on his own, he has the control and, unexpectedly, the situation seems to slip off his hands. The guitar has the burden of holding onto the voice and it is the singing to pay the price. Kurt attention is on the playing. His voice seems to lose its impact, weakens and hides behind the chords and the fingerpicking. Vile hides behind his hair.
If it wasn’t for the reverb overdose the songs are filled, the way Vile modulates the singing has a lot to do with Bob Dylan. Something evident since The War on Drugs days. No mystery he loves and celebrates Mr Zimmerman. He does his own way, though, and he does it well.
Curiously, it is a cover of the other legend of American music, Bruce Springsteen, to mark the best moment of this great show.
When the wall of Violators guitars ride Downbound Train chords progression a perception of excitement growing in the audience is palpable. In less than a minute half the venue is singing along the chorus. Several people, many very young, wonder what song that is. The overlapping solos of the two other guitarists are raucous and advance uncompromisingly. No one can stop it.
After one of the best cover I heard in years, Kurt Vile made me want to listen to Bruce Springsteen more than the Boss has managed in the last 20 years.
Instead as soon as the main set closes, I had to walk to the Station to catch my train back home, skipping the encore. Twitter rumours say Peter Kember came back on stage to play Spacemen3 songs Hey Man and Amen with Kurt Vile and the Violators. I can’t find a video of this happening in London. I will blame First Capital Connect and National Rail for the rest of my life.
When an artist on stage makes me quote both Dylan and Springsteen in the same writing, when he manages to send some shivers to my spine with just honest songs and reverbed guitar music, when he can close a set covering Spacemen3 with one of the Spacemen3 in person, you know you have been part of something special.
Talk to fellow photographers.
It can be because I am Italian, not even that outspoken for an average Italian to be sincere with you, but anytime I am in a pit I say hello to everyone and attempt to talk to other photographers. I have noticed that it is rare, many of us stay in a corner silently playing with a smartphone, waiting for the start.
For concert photographers a pit is like a boat for a sailor. Those 20-30 minutes we are in the same boat. A narrow space packed with people in love doing the same thing: shooting gigs. You may know someone but there are always new additions and very rarely we are all alone.
I found some very good friends in the pit. I got some nice professional contacts, I learnt a lot and even realized I was shoulder to shoulder with Ross Halfin or Steve Gullick. Useful to know, there’s not a better thing of shooting a gig with a great photographer. It is like having your own workshop. I would say it is even worth missing some pics to check what he’s doing.
You can learn watching others but also talking with others. Any photographer loves talking about photography, be sure. And you may have something to tell too. It is a take/give – win/win situation. Sometime we are the experienced and will answer questions, other we ask.
Problem. The first question between photographers in a pit is, 99% of the times, this: “Who are you shooting for?”
It used to annoy me, now I got used. Beyond the natural curiosity I see it as a way to investigate how hierarchically important you are even before asking your name. I never ask that. If you came across the question by someone, you now know it’s not me.
Competition. This is the biggest enemy between concert photographers. Some of us have an unpleasant attitude. They think to be better, to not have time for you. Some think to own the recipe of success. Sometimes are paranoid to the point of thinking you will steal their secrets so better reveal less as possible. With the amount of images and info online, this is nonsense.
There are no secrets, there are no geniuses. There is only experience and dedication. Overconfident people saying they are the best or explaining why they are doing better than you, means they are probably not. Because if you know and you think to be great you don’t need to show off saying you’re great. If they do, they have a problem.
They are not the majority. Most of us are a passionate bunch of friendly people.
Introduce yourself, ask a less intrusive question, and we won’t be on the defensive.
The funniest thing these days is that likely some of the photographers shooting next to you, are people you follow on Facebook or Twitter and you don’t know. It happened to me. Our nicks are not displaced on our photo pass sticker. Our gravatar is nowhere near our real face.
Next time you’re in the pit say hello, I’ll reply, we may have a chat, shoot the gig together and hang out for a beer after the third song.