Show review: John Vanderslice, Portastatic, Brandon Butler.

Traveled last night to DC to see John Vanderslice, Portastatic, and Brandon Butler at the Black Cat. I wasn't but so familiar with any of the acts, though I've certainly heard Mac McCaughan's work in Superchunk and Brandon Butler's work in Boys Life and Canyon. I really just went because some new friends of mine were going, and I wanted to hang out with them more.

The drive up was kind of rough. I sat in the back and had the worst attack of the motion sickness that's plagued me all my life that I've had anytime since becoming an adult. I didn't get sick, but I definitely had moments where all I could do was hang onto the door handle, close my eyes, and sit very still. I never feel sick if I'm in the front seat, but I'd been too nice to demand it on the way up. Whoops. I made sure in advance that I could sit shotgun on the way home.

We got to the show right as Brandon Butler was starting. He played an acoustic guitar and sang, and was backed up by a bassist and a cellist. No percussion of any kind. I liked what I heard of his music, though it's far from what he did in his early days on the scene, in Boys Life and The Farewell Bend, a couple of pioneering midwestern-based emo bands. It was a lot closer to what he did in Canyon, an alt-country band he played in a few years ago, but was made rootsier merely by virtue of the instrumentation he was using. Canyon was a pretty large band, and had rock elements to their sound despite country-styled songwriting just because of the louder, electric instruments they used. Butler's solo stuff, by being stripped down as it was, lost a lot of the rock feel that Canyon had and was basically country. It was good, but nothing outstanding. I think I'd like it better with a full band backing him up.

Portastatic was next, and I wasn't completely unfamiliar with them, but I hadn't heard anything they'd done in a long time. I was used to thinking of them as Mac McCaughan's acoustic, experimental project, where he got out all the ideas he had that didn't fit Superchunk. I'm not sure what's up with Superchunk these days--I've gotten the idea at times that they're over, only to have them release another record. Either way, at this point in their career Portastatic is far closer to the territory Superchunk normally covers than I'd expected. Mac played electric guitar and was backed up by his brother Matthew on drums, fellow Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur on bass, and multi-instrumentalist Margaret White, who most often played keyboards or violin, though she also played acoustic guitar and various percussion instruments. The songs were catchy pop-rock, and with Mac's signature high, nasal vocals added on top, they could have been new Superchunk songs, but for one crucial difference. I always felt like Superchunk were a melodic punk rock band, and a very good one at that, but Portastatic has no punk elements to their sound. Where Superchunk sounds at least influenced by punk at all times, Portastatic is straight-up rock music. Superchunk always had guitar solos, but they were punk rock guitar solos--short, to the point, not very flashy. Mac's solos in Portastatic are an entirely different beast, at times approaching J Mascis-style length and pyrotechnics.

So did I like it? Well, after 24 hours, I'm still not quite sure. At the time the songs were catchy and enjoyable, though I wasn't as galvanized and blown away as I was the first time I saw Superchunk in 1992, by any stretch of the imagination. However, most of the people I was there with weren't that excited by Portastatic, and upon reflection I can understand why. They're not doing anything all that special, and while they're good at what they do they're certainly not head and shoulders above the sizable pack that do the same thing. There are plenty of bands playing alternative/indie-oriented pop-rock music, and quite a few who do it better than Portastatic. You could do a lot worse than what they're doing, but they're not something I'd go out of my way to see again. I think they could be improved if they quit with the pretense towards earlier experimentalism and just gave Margaret White a second electric guitar and cranked it up. If they're going to play pop-rock, I personally would prefer that they go for it full-on and not monkey around with needless instrumental layers. That's just one reporter's opinion, though.

John Vanderslice came out onstage after a notably short instrument changeover, which was refreshing after my last experience at the Black Cat when I had to wait way longer for Dungen to take the stage than they had any excuse taking. He had a similar instrumental setup to Portastatic; himself on vocals and electric guitar, plus a bassist, a drummer, and a keyboard/synth player. Now, I wasn't too familiar with Mr. Vanderslice before deciding to go to this show. I had heard three of his albums by the time the day of the show came around, but I'd acquired them all within the previous week, and didn't know many of his songs. I spent a significant portion of the set talking to a couple of different friends that I ran into at the show, and by the end of his set I was glad I had done so, because even if I'd loved the guy I'd probably have felt that his set went on for too long. As it was, I didn't know the majority of the songs he played, and I would have been bored as hell by the end of the set if I hadn't had people to talk to. The music was good, featuring tautly crafted pop hooks played proficiently by a practiced combo of musicians who worked well together. They even did a good job adapting songs from older albums to the instrumental lineup of the current band, when a lot of them were written for far different setups. But in the end, I think I felt like it was good as opposed to great precisely because of how well-mannered and tame the whole thing was.

John Vanderslice's vocals are clearly enunciated to the point that sometimes he seems to be singing in a fake British accent, and his guitar lines never get too crazy, his sound never too overdriven. This is not what I look for in music that I love. I'm a raw nerve of a person, emotionally-centered and driven by passion to an extent that often separates me from the majority of society, makes me an obvious weirdo in the eyes of most people. This is a lot of why I gravitated to the indie-rock/punk/hardcore/metal scene in the first place. I can certainly concede that John Vanderslice's music is well-crafted, well-played, and catchy. It's clever, especially in the way that he often combines upbeat pop melodies with lyrics that tell harsh, biting tales of drug abuse, emotional imbalance, and general malfeasance. Hell, I'll even go ahead and say that I like it ok. It just is never going to blow me away as it stands right now, precisely because of how emotional a person I am. I don't get a feeling of emotion in John Vanderslice's music. It seems restrained, sober, contained, to an extent that I don't like. It's not the style he's playing in, either--I can certainly see easy comparisons between his and Morrissey's work, both with The Smiths and solo. But it doesn't knock me on my ass the way those records do, and that's because Morrissey never let his mannered vocal style get in the way of expressed emotion. Vanderslice's lyrics may all be true stories taken from his own life, and Morrissey may have fabricated every story he ever told. But I'm never going to believe in Vanderslice the way I believe in Morrissey. And this is a major stumbling block in my ability to enjoy his music. I may yet find it growing on me over time, but as it is right now I think John Vanderslice will always be the sort of artist I damn with faint praise. He's a nice guy, that's obvious from his stage presence even if I hadn't heard it a million times from people who've met him, but I doubt I'll ever go out of my way to see him play again. If he ever replaces his keyboardist with a second guitarist and cranks the distortion on both of their guitars, if he ever drops the mannered vocal style and fucking wails, this may change. We'll see, I suppose.


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