Kurt Vile and the Violators review – solid gold stoner rock

<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

If you were to draw the Philadelphian musician Kurt Vile in silhouette, he would be immediately recognisable. Standing in front of a magnificent fabric mural, themed around his 2022 album (watch my moves), the guitarist’s long, wavy hair hangs in curtains around his face as his eyes cast intently downwards at a succession of instruments. In a plaid shirt and worn jeans, he is both a cartoon of every distrait American guitar player from Neil Young on down through the slacker era – and yet somehow still singular in his rumpled but unruffled air. His moves, meanwhile, are crab-like; his shakes of the head, staccato.

Likewise, Vile’s sprawling music tilts at a panoply of greats. There’s Young, of course, and Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, plus indie rock forerunners such as Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis. But his songs remain instantly spottable in a lineup of drawled psych-rock – beautiful and tuneful, as well as gnarly and inward-folding.

Playing the second of two sold-out nights in London, and focusing, not particularly exclusively, on (watch my moves), Vile’s songs are often conversational, unguarded. He often sings you what he’s thinking. “I think about them all the time,” he sings about a “happily wed” couple on Girl Called Alex, an old tune from 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze album. On the more recent Mount Airy Hill, he’s “thinkin’ about flyin’”.

Later on, on Bassackwards, he’ll be “on the beach” but “thinking about the bay”. (That ass-backwards title is a very Vile turn of phrase.) In song, he is often just waking up – a tradition that harks far back to the blues and other traditional forms. But it’s this being present in the moment that gives Vile the air of a bedheaded savant.

It might be a total bummer to point it out, but death stalks this lovely set

If he seems shrouded in recreational substances, well, he might be thinking more clearly than you assume. A bit like Snoop Dogg, Vile is both weed-informed and a family man; a renegade and rock solid. His daughters are on the cover of (watch my moves) and feature regularly on his Instagram. He recently released a one-off song with them, a loving cover of Charli XCX’s Constant Repeat.

Vile’s air of copaceticness grows more complicated, too, when the unhurried, often beatific furl of his songs reveals the bleakest of lyrics. “I wanna live all the time in my fantasy infinity,” he drawls on Girl Called Alex. “There I will never be abandoned.”

Like many others, this song takes place “in the dawn’s early light” – a line that teases out another strand in his work. He is a notably American writer, straddling hyper-local considerations (the Philadelphia-specific Loading Zones) as well as a kind of off-the-cuff, everyman cosmic-ness.

Tonight, Vile’s languid guitar playing feels as conversational as his words. His solos are quite succinct – poppy, even – given the lineage he draws from; Neil Young’s songs are often long, intricate guitar workouts. One lovely cut from (watch my moves), Hey Like a Child, is a cocktail of twang and mellowness, like having SSRI antidepressants administered through the ear canal.

Vile’s solo here is typical: it could be blistering, but he holds back, forming elegant cat’s cradles instead. Mostly, he is backed by his guitar, bass, drums and synth-augmented band, the Violators (the pun foremost in their name, rather than the suggestion of harm). But a handful of key songs are delivered solo acoustic.

It might be a total bummer to point it out, but death stalks this lovely set. Early on, Vile briefly acknowledges Rob Laakso, his bandmate who died last month from cancer aged 44. (Vile’s Instagram post about Laakso was more long-form.) Significantly, Laakso replaced Vile’s previous righthand man – one Adam Granduciel, who bowed out of the Violators in about 2011 to focus on the War on Drugs, a band Vile had played in, early on.

More RIPs follow. A few songs in, Vile plays a country tune, How Lucky, by the late John Prine – an artist whose “stuff”, according to Dylan, was “pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.”

Kurt Vile and the Violators at Koko.
Kurt Vile and the Violators at Koko. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Not long before Prine’s death from Covid in 2020, Vile released an EP, Speed, Sound, Lonely KV, made up in large part of covers, including How Lucky, a duet with Prine himself. Tonight, played solo, How Lucky acts as a wry memorial to Prine – a songwriter’s songwriter who never had huge commercial success – while playing into Vile’s own brand of all-rightness. “Mind trips to the nth degree”, meanwhile, could just as easily describe Vile’s music – many-layered sounds that repay close attention, even as they soothingly wash over you.

At the end of the encore is one more wistful cover, a love song by the Silver Jews called Punks in the Beerlight. Vile dedicates it to “my girls” – his daughters and wife, Suze, watching from a stage-side balcony. The Silver Jews’s David Berman was another cult music figure lacking in just rewards. He killed himself in 2019 after a long battle with substance abuse and depression. “I love you, to the max!” goes the song’s shouted chorus. Once again, commemoration combines with plain-speaking good vibes.