John Vanderslice + Pedro the Lion

by Justin Cober-Lake

23 June 2004


John Vanderslice
Pedro the Lion

With Pedro the Lion and John Vandeslice coming in to support their new albums, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Starr Hill lacks the quality acoustics necessary to do justice to the pristine sound that John Vanderslice obtains on his records. I also suspected a small turnout, considering it was a college town hosting an indie-rock show in mid-June. Finally, I was curious to see what Pedro the Lion could do with the more sedate material on their last release Achilles Hell. All my questions would be answered in somewhat surprising ways by the end of the night.

John Vanderslice + Pedro the Lion

16 Jun 2004: Starr Hill Music Hall — Charlottesville, Virginia

Vanderslice opened his set with “Wild Strawberries”, and a totally different sound came from the stage. The drums were higher in the mix than on Cellar Door, and the rest of the music had a heavier, dirty mix. The group retained this sound throughout the set, and it worked perfectly. Scott Solter, who appears on the new album, switched between MIDI (with live playing and recorded sequences) and electric guitar, and he was effective at both. Removed from precise studio manipulation, Vanderslice’s songs stood up as well as ever, and the harder versions in the live show made for a fun rock show. On record, Vanderslice comes off as a singer-songwriter who works with a full band; live, the act sounds like a hard rock outfit with more intelligence than most of its peers.

While he seemed to enjoy the performance throughout (even calling this tour his “favorite ever” at one point), he employed very little stage banter, moving quickly between songs. Vanderslice was friendly at all times, even after the show when he posed for pictures, talked to fans, and watched some of Pedro the Lion’s set. His quietness, behind a frequent grin, lent him an air of shyness, which coupled with his good looks and platinum blonde hair, makes him seem too precious to write such dark songs. His playing and singing let you know it’s all him, though, as he’s enthusiastic and intense, even while enjoying his bandmates.

The set ended too soon—we’d gotten most of Cellar Door, but only a few older tracks, including a great, aggressive version of “Time Travel Is Lonely”. The group ended perfectly, though, with a slightly different version of “Up Above the Sea” driven by a loud, funky bassline. It was a good number to end on, as it has a strong release and a powerful conclusion, yet keeps the crowd wanting more.

Pedro the Lion set up quickly, which was nice because the hall was filling up quickly. As the show began, I worried that I’d get bored with this quickly. Pedro did little to vary tone or tempo, and I didn’t really feel a change of pace until the bridge of the third or fourth song. Each piece relied on a 2-4 snare hit and simple drum pattern. While the crowd enjoyed singing along, the performance was looking monotonous.

Part of the problem stemmed from the poor mix, which is odd considering that the studio perfectionist’s band sounded so good. With frontman Dave Bazan’s vocals buried in a muddy mix (which did include a good, almost shoegazer guitar tone), his lyrics were hard to make out. Pedro’s lyrics tend to be smart and questioning, and the band’s songs rely on them. Just as I was thinking about how I had always respected Pedro’s willingness to question their beliefs, Bazan stopped the show and asked the audience if they had any questions. He did so three times during the concert and took questions that ranged from goofy to curious to political. He explained in sad detail the origins of “Priests and Paramedics” and explained how his wife loved getting the mail and he loved eating tacos (this in response to a question on mail v. tacos). The fans loved it, and Bazan was as affable as you’ve been led to believe.

Maybe the Q&A’s stirred everyone up, but the show picked up after the first break. After the repetitive upbeat songs, the slower numbers gained force. At one point, Bazan announced that they were about to do a Randy Newman number, “Political Science”, and three or four people clapped. The reaction wasn’t surprising considering the crowd was mostly, as my friend described it, made up of people who view Ashton Kutcher as an adult. I don’t think anyone in trucker hats clapped before the song, but Pedro did a good job with it, and Bazan would return to the song’s sentiments at the end of the show.

The show ran out of steam toward the end, but Pedro stuck around for an encore. In fact, they didn’t even leave the stage; as Bazan explained, they “try not to play games” with the audience at the end of the show. During the encore Bazan was the least playful that he was all night. Someone asked him about the possibility of the draft being reinstated for the U.S. military. He responded that he was trying to give a bi-partisan answer, but his true sympathies came out without too much difficulty as he spoke against the media control over our understanding of our government, the problems with the war in Iraq, the U.S.‘s current crisis (of which President Bush is a symptom), and the fact that he wouldn’t go to war for the “rich dudes”.

That, I think, is the importance of Pedro the Lion. Ten years ago, Mark Noll wrote, “[t]he scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,” but Bazan and his bandmates stand at the opposite end. They have no hesitation in proclaiming their faith (count the references to Jesus on their mainstream albums), but they also know the importance of inquiring and examining their worldview. It’s an important stance for someone with a microphone to be willing to take right now, as our country continues to feel the split of the culture wars, even after they’ve supposedly died down, as well as literal war overseas. Pedro the Lion makes a personal, spiritual, and political statement in straightforward and accessible way.

That, and the kids like them, too.

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