Walking the streets of Ballard on Sunday was a lonely affair. With most businesses closing early for the Easter holiday, as I turned the corner to go up to the Sunset Tavern, it was one of the few places still open. The Sunset Tavern can be a great venue to see music if you get there early enough, and fortunately it wasn’t too crowded as I made my way up to stake out a good spot to see Kurt Vile. Known for his lengthy musical background and punk ethic, Vile played to a sold out crowd. Utilizing a trio of guitars, Vile started the evening off with a sonic attack of reverb and distortion. As he took the four-track fidelity of his latest album, Smoke Ring For My Halo, and turned it into a wall of sound, the crowd at the Sunset Tavern was hanging on every muddled word.
Vile spent the evening alternating between “electric” numbers like “Freak Train” off his previous release God Is Saying This to You, and Fahey-esque finger-picked numbers like “Peeping Tomboy.” Looking around the front row, people were not staring wide-eyed at Vile’s gawky figure, but instead were swaying back and forth, eyes closed, taking in the sound. The Sunset Tavern was completely packed out, making the thought of going to get a beer or even using the restroom seem like a suicidal move. Vile and his backing band The Violators make for a nostalgic looking crew. Sporting long wavy hair and tight fit t-shirts, they seemed like they could have been a family band, all related in some way. Vile had plenty of witty between song banter, but most of it was lost on the subdued, yet attentive audience. When Vile launched into his latest single, “Jesus Fever” there was some crowd reaction of praise as Vile took the upbeat rocker into a smooth summer jam. Vile at some points channeled Neil Young as he played slow yet calculated guitar solos, but by the next song he was a steel string slinger doing his best version of fellow Philadelphian Jack Rose. While it may have been too cold for an April evening outside, it was burning up inside the Sunset Tavern as Vile played for a little over an hour, even taking some audience requests.
Playing to a quickly filling room EMA, took the stage to start the evening off. Immediately I could tell EMA were all over the map stylistically. One song was a Sonic Youth style noise freak out, then the next number would have sultry rapping over sampled drums. This was not necessarily a negative thing; although they may not be sure what direction they are going as a band, they had an interesting set up. Consisting of a violin run through a small array of effects pedals, guitar, bass and drums, EMA knew how to squall and they knew how to deliver accessible pop jams.