Five quick thoughts on John Vanderslice and Crooked Fingers' election night show at The Tree Bar:
(1) In my preview, I called Vanderslice "a national treasure," but I'm not sure I realized how true that was until I interacted with him in person, first one-on-one at his merchandise table and then addressing the crowd throughout his performance. He was marvelously engaging, funny and polite, whether rattling off trivia about XTC or stumping for WFMU's The Best Show or singing the praises of Tree Bar booking guy/fellow fine human being Kyle Sowash. Vanderslice was instantly and fully connected with his audience, even climbing on the newly lacquered silver maple trunk to perform a stirring, sing-along rendition of "Keep the Dream Alive," which felt appropriate given Tuesday's other activities. (As did his "Darnielle/Vanderslice 2004: A Less Totally F---ed America" T-shirt.)
(2) Vanderslice played solo with only an acoustic guitar, a format I reflexively hate — especially acoustic versions of songs (like these ones) that were written with powerful arrangements in mind. But Vanderslice's best instrument is his voice, a distinct and trembling beam of light that guides his songs to sonic splendor. When you've got songs as smart-yet-simple as these ones, a voice like that is all you need. When he turned off the chitchat and unleashed the melody of "After It Ends," I instantly felt like I was inside one of his records, which is a fine place to be. When he unleashed a string of three straight from 2004's expertly arranged Cellar Door — "White Plains," "Pale Horse" and "Promising Actress" — he more than validated the approach.
(3) By the way, getting three songs from Cellar Door was more than I could have asked for. That's one of my all-time college nostalgia albums, and you should totally immerse yourself in it sometime. Actually, just go listen to "White Plains" right now.
(4) Vanderslice did have a band backing him during his last song, for which he invited co-headliners Crooked Fingers on stage. Apparently during this tour Crooked Fingers performs a different Vanderslice song each night. The catch is they don't know the song until they step on stage; he teaches it to them on the spot and they just roll with it. This worked out surprisingly well, exemplifying both Vanderslice's musical talents (he can wrangle so much emotion from a few basic chords) and his friendly demeanor (imparting the song required a lot of laughter from all parties). He promised he'd be back in four years (get it?), but hopefully sooner.
(5) As for Crooked Fingers, I also expressed my opinion about that band in the show preview — that is, Eric Bachmann's droning folk excursions don't really hold my attention (or hold a candle to the rabble-rousing punk rock of his prior band, Archers of Loaf). I formed that opinion after bearing witness to at least two Crooked Fingers shows over the past 10 years as well as trying to wrest some enjoyment out of the albums. Nonetheless, I was ready to give them another try last night. The opening number immediately grabbed me, all momentum and heavenward melody, but pretty soon they settled back into the midtempo dirges that cause me to glaze over and zone out. It's the same reason I struggle with the music of Bill Callahan and Richard Buckner — poetic or not, it all starts to feel like one sustained mumbling rumble. Fortunately, there was something more entertaining on TV in the next room.