A Veteran Totally at Ease

May 13th, 2011

John Vanderslice – Mercury Lounge – May 12, 2011



It takes a little bit extra to put on a successful show as just a duo. You need to have great songs or great chops and a superb drummer or there should be lots of guests or witty banter between songs or good use of multiple instruments and samples. Luckily for last night’s Mercury Lounge audience, John Vanderslice (and Jason Slota) had all of those things going for them. The Merc is so often the venue where you see the bands before they become the bands, but watching Vanderslice was observing a veteran totally at ease playing an intimate club filled with dedicated fans without worry about where his career is going or where it’s been. Looking like Dana Carvey playing the part of an indie rocker, he was often just as hilarious, plumbing the depths of his repertoire and barely attempting too many stripped-down versions of songs from his orchestral new album, White Wilderness.

The show had a looking-in-on-a-rehearsal vibe to it, with Vanderslice stopping once or twice to make sure samples were synched correctly or that a guest knew the chord changes. And guests there were, no less than six, making it feel even more like an informal jam session during what Vanderslice called “Audience Participation Month” (some audience members accepted the invitation to sit onstage during the entire 80-minute set). A guest vocalist and rhythm-guitar player added layers to “Trance Manual.” Mitch Marcus added saxophone in between a drum solo, dented guitar solo and sample bits on “Exodus Damage.” Ian Bjornstad joined in for “Underneath the Leaves,” and opener Damien Jurado came out for the encore.

Affable as ever, Vanderslice impressively dropped both a Simpsons and Nabokov reference into his introduction for old friend Bjornstad. Pushing the limits of what he felt the duo could do, Vanderslice and Slota perfectly playing the prog-pop composition of “Kookaburra” as a no-guest highlight. A show during Audience Participation Month had to end with the duo and friends in the middle of the floor of Mercury Lounge, with those in the audience shining their flashlight apps at the makeshift band so they could see while singing along. Jurado promptly proclaimed it the “best show of the tour” and the audience knew very well, they were appreciated. —A. Stein