John Vanderslice + The Court and Spark

by Jillian Steinberger

18 February 2002


John Vanderslice + The Court and Spark

19 Feb 2002: Bottom of the Hill — San Francisco

Vanderslice Celebrates DIY Spirit, But Band Can Play Their Instruments


ohn Vanderslice is a charismatic musician, and one energetic, blonde cutey of a front man.

But don’t let that fool you. There’s substance behind his art rocker exterior. Most critics seem to agree he’s gifted musically and lyrically—and just plain all-around smart. And it’s true: he is. He’s someone who mentions Yes, King Crimson and the 19th century romantic German composer, Robert Schumann (founder of the journalistic principles of music criticism, Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik ) all in one sentence, while avoiding pretension. He’s merely enthusiastic—a person brimming over with ideas.

It’s inspirational to see an artist doing away with “thinking outside the box”—because he’s not, frankly, concerned with the box. Frontman for now-disbanded indie group MK Ultra, he releases his third solo LP, The Life and Death of an American Fourtracker, on Seattle’s Barsuk label, home to Death Cab for Cutie. Members of that band have helped out on the new album (which is slated for a May 7 release) as have members from great bands like Beulah, Spoon and Mountain Goats.

John—or JV as he sometimes is known—is a fireball of intense, friendly energy. Onstage, he’s a natural, with a magnetic force field that pulls the audience to him. He stole the show on Tues., Feb. 19 at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, although The Court and Spark were headlining.

The band opened with the new album’s sixth song, “Nikki oh Nikki”. The audience stopped milling about, stopped worrying about beer and concentrated on the stage. Also from the new release, he played “Underneath the Leaves”.

Vanderslice’s live show goes down easy. The songs have tight constructions; they’re poppy and hooky, yet deep and mysterious and literate, and they rock. Although drawn from different concept albums, the songs fit together in the set, perhaps because they’re all intense. Some lean more toward pretty rockers with stirring power chords, some are a bit more jangly, some have hard, driving beats, and some are more noticeable for their rhythms. Often JV’s vocals sound British invasion-esque á la the Beatles’ Norwegian Woods. Many who like Elephant 6 bands like Neutral Milk Hotel also like Vanderslice.

For his second number Vanderslice played “You Were My Fiji” off his critically applauded 2001 LP, Time Travel is Lonely. With arty drumming, this paean to lost love has a bit of a new wave sound. JV played electrified acoustic guitar as he sang, “O you, you were my Fiji/ O believe me/ but I fell in love with somebody else’s sand/ somebody else’s dry land.”

John’s stage presence is confident, energetic—and warm. Between songs somebody called out “Coffee Girl”, an MK Ultra song. Amused and sheepish, John said “That’s an old one!” Then the band went right into “Emma Pearl”. They received an especially big round of applause.

They finished up with the enigmatic, “Keep the Dream Alive”, a jangly rocker that recalls images of men in coonskin caps—a sort of lyrical time travel back to Lewis & Clarke or Daniel Boone. The song is another from Time Travel is Lonely. Sometimes I dreamed I heard echoes of Donovan rising up through the smoking embers described in the song, which utilizes Beulah-like horns and rhythms.

Vanderslice may be into lo-fi ideals, but the band knows how to play their instruments. In fact, Vanderslice’s aesthetic, as he describes it, is a “distressed hi-fi” sound. Though he calls himself a solo artist, John is again atypical. He appears to thrive on change. He said he doesn’t wait for a big band to ask him to open because he loves playing out, so he’s constantly booking club dates. But besides the continuous touring, he aggregates creative people for projects, whether as musician or producer, at his studio, Tiny Telephone Recording. When these talented musicians help, they’re not there just to back him up. Each project feels like a collaboration. John said he likes hooking up with musicians regionally, knowing what’s going on with local scenes.

For his present cross-country tour, Vanderslice shares six dates with John Darnielle of Mountain Goats (“I worship John Darnielle,” JV said, and it’s hard not to agree). His live ensemble includes Scott Solter of the sophisticated Tarentel on bass and keyboards. From Portland, Ben Barnett of Kind of Like Spitting plays guitar and adds backing vocals. His picking sounded fine and was pleasant to watch. Christopher McGuire of Kid Dakota was on drums, and of course JV pulled things together into one tight gestalt in front on guitar and vocals.

The audience was its own fun little show. Many gazed intently with furrowed brow and the critic’s contemplative look upon the stage. Many in the crowd also wore their philosophies stylishly, literally on their sleeves, with a range of attitudes from advocates of neo-psychedelia to tall-skinny Gerard Malanga doppelganger boys. There were several knit caps on men with romantic, Blakean, blunt hair.

I accosted drummer McGuire and asked how he felt about playing for a San Francisco audience. “The crowd here seems to really care about the music,” he said. “In Minneapolis, they just go to the clubs to get laid.” I asked if perhaps he wasn’t joking so I’d look silly in print. “No, no,” he said, “It’s true, that’s what I really think,” and walked toward the bar.

Moving from John Vandersplice to The Court and Spark felt like switching radio stations and decades.

The first half of The Court and Spark’s set had the audience’s attention. The songs are undisputedly good—warm, full, and twangy, with a narcotic effect, and the band are fun to watch—beautiful neo-early-country rock romantics with a vintage look. A sensual country torch singer, Frontman M.C. Taylor practically French kisses the microphone as he romances the audience, a vision lifted out of 1974 in form-fitting head-to-toe denim. The unnamed keyboardist smiled benignly through the set, as if playing his way to grace. When lead guitarist Scott Hirsh added his vocal harmonies to Taylor’s, the two together made the audience shift—you could see a stir.

People started wandering off in the second half of the set. It’s not that The Court and Spark’s performance was bad or uninspired—in fact, they were good, and audiences should enjoy their shows. It’s just that they invited M.C.‘s brother’s five-piece brass band onstage for a song midway through the set, and they never left. Ten players crowded Bottom of the Hill’s tiny stage, and the brass parts stood tightly and awkwardly together with nothing to do, not playing. When they did play, they overwhelmed the chill country twang, and the overall effect was unprofessional. Five horns were a bit much paired with this bluesy country rock band’s core parts: pedal steel, lead and rhythm guitars, bass and drums. It wasn’t the right time for a family re-union.

The early bluesy country rock sounds good, but it can get laid on a bit thick. It’s good to see The Court and Spark filtering songs through a contemporary lens rather than satisfied with straight-up genre rock. They should continue experimenting—but, probably not with five horns!

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