The gig begins about twenty minutes late, with a bedraggled Kurt Vile stepping onto the stage and showing the crowd the two cans of beer he is holding onto like his life depends on it. Alongside his ample band, he launches into “Dust Bunnies” one of the best tracks from his superb latest album. Unfortunately, though, the first problem in a gig that is let down by a few of them, occurs when he steps to the microphone. The crowd can’t hear him. Are the numerous guitars on stage too loud? Is his microphone too quiet? A man on the front row signals to the sound guy, asks him to turn up the vocals. The sound guy shrugs his shoulders. The crowd looks at Kurt, wishing they could hear those wonderful lyrics he writes but trying to enjoy it regardless.
Before the band can get started on ‘Outlaw’, one of the other highlights from “B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down”, several audience members tell Kurt and the band about the problem with the vocals. Kurt looks towards the sound guy. The guitarist steps forward and tells the questioning crowd that they might be able to hear the vocals better if they move to the back of the room. But the crowd don’t want to move to the back of the room; they’ve come to see one of their favourite singers perform tracks from his exceptional latest album. And they know that they should be able to stand close to him and still hear what he’s saying. A slight disconnect between band and audience begins.
That disconnect will remain as an issue throughout much of the set. Despite showing some initial concern at his fan’s complaints, Kurt soon settles for obliviousness and goes on with the show. We are treated to an impressive display of the band’s skill and musicianship, but without being able to hear the words that make Kurt’s songs so special, it feels a little more like a guitar exhibition than the intimate gig we’ve been promised. And sadly, because of that, it begins to get a bit samey.
There are quite a few moments when we escape this malaise, though. Kurt has the stage to himself for a while in the middle of the show and the crowd can hear him. With just his acoustic guitar, and with his lyrics once again audible, we are reminded why we wanted to come and see him in the first place. Towards the end of the set, and particularly during ‘Pretty Pimpin’’ and ‘Wild Imagination’, it feels like the whole band gets into their groove and something special happens. For those few songs the connection is there and you can tell that everybody in the room feels it.
Other than during those more transcendent moments, though, the general feeling is that the performance doesn’t live up to expectations. Those cans Kurt was clasping when he came on stage seem to add to the problems created by the inaudible vocals and the too loud guitars. Whether those issues are down to the band or the venue is hard to know, but such disappointing sound quality has rarely been a problem at Gorilla before.
Judging by hype and past reviews, it’s likely that this was just an off night. And if you’ve spent much of the weekend just gone watching highlights of a famous festival in Pilton, you might have already seen Kurt and the band proving just what they’re capable of. The gig at Gorilla was billed as a warm up for their show at Glastonbury, and it felt, at times, like their minds were already on this bigger and more visible performance. Let’s hope they didn’t face the same difficulties there as they did in Manchester, because there can be no doubt that Kurt and co have a collection of songs that deserve a wider audience.