Concert Review: John Vanderslice

by Caitlin Servilio

The Rock & Roll Hotel is a bit of a hike from the Union Station Metro stop in Washington, D.C., it’s true. But the 15 blocks are well worth the walk when the Hotel has been consistently booking great artists since it opened last year. Last weekend, it was John Vanderslice and Bishop Allen, both of whom played fantastic sets on the Hotel’s tiny, cramped stage.

Vanderslice is a singer/songwriter originally from Gainesville, Florida, who went solo after the breakup of his band MK Ultra in 1999. Since that time, he has been releasing richly lyrical albums that combine a thoughtfully instrumental pop sensibility with a sense of humor and social consciousness. Emerald City, which was released in July, contains even more political commentary wedded with catchy hooks and yearning melodies. At the Hotel, Vanderslice and his band (made up of a drummer, keyboardist, and violinist/guitarist) started strong with “Kookaburra,” a highly esoteric discussion of capitol domes, dirty confetti, and other veiled allusions to sex from Emerald City. As the set went on, he included other songs from 2005’s Pixel Revolt and 2004’s Cellar Door.

Standouts included the heartbreaking “White Dove,” about the abduction of his neighbor’s eight-year-old daughter; “They Won’t Let Me Run,” a surprising wistful and sympathetic portrait of a small-town lowlife; and “Trance Manual,” a mellow ballad about the liaison of an American journalist and Iraqi prostitute. Between songs, Vanderslice proved a funny and engaging performer, giving out drink tickets to the crowd (“Life’s biggest regret is waking up the next morning with like 50 drink tickets you didn’t use,” he said wisely), inviting everyone to hang out with him at the Montgomery County Mall, and cajoling his violinist to do a Gollum impression (which he did, to the delight of all). The audience loved Vanderslice’s banter and knew all the lyrics to his songs, which was impressive considering the length and complexity of his material. Vanderslice himself seemed appreciative of this, proclaiming that this was one of his favorite shows ever.

One of the best moments of the show, however, came during “Exodus Damage,” probably the most sensitive and intelligent of all the songs that have been written about 9/11, with Vanderslice plaintively but firmly calling out to America:

No one ever says a word about/
So much that happens in the world/
Dance Dance Revolution/
All we’re gonna get/
Unless it falls apart.
I’ve heard a lot of bands that have violinists, from the mediocre (Yellowcard, anyone?) to the excellent (The Decemberists) but rarely have I heard a violin solo more inspired than that by Daniel Hart during “Exodus Damage.”

Sadly, Vanderslice did not play an encore, but he ended on a perfect note by bringing the whole band down from the stage, bass drum and all, for “Keep The Dream Alive,” and then encouraging the crowd to stay after the show for a dance party. Some of the hipsters in the audience seemed to think this was a stellar idea and were already starting to bust a move as we made our way out of the club.

In the opening set, Bishop Allen, kept the energy high as they played various jaunty pop numbers from their recent release, The Broken String, including the sweetly catchy singles “Click Click Click Click” and “Rain.” They also broke out some excellent tunes from previous releases, such as “Corazon” and “Things Are What You Make of Them.” Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, actor/musicians from Brooklyn and the masterminds behind the band, were as charming and witty as ever. There have been some changes in the lineup of the band since they last performed in D.C. (please see: "Four Bands"), but Rice and Rudder always carry the show as long as they have competent musicians backing them.

All in all, another great night for the Rock & Roll Hotel, which continues its winning streak this weekend with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth playing on Saturday, Sept. 29.

(Photo of John Vanderslice from his performance at D.C.'s Black Cat in 2005 by dcJohn of Washington, DC, of course; via Flickr using a Creative Commons license. John Vanderslice, with Bishop Allen as the opening act, will appear in Cambridge, MA for a show tomorrow night, Sept. 27, as their U.S. tour continues. To see Vanderslice play "Trance Manual" at L.A.'s Troubadour on this tour, please check below.)

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