John Vanderslice

[6 December 2006]

By Chris Gray

Here’s to hoping Allison, the girl I met from the Heidelberg American High School swim team, posts her photos online; they’re telling images. I’m thinking of one in particular: Allison is on stage accompanying John Vanderslice and his band on tambourine as her mom, a U.S. Army soldier, and several German kids from cities as far away as Hamburg bang drum sticks.

It was just the first of two group efforts inspired by John Vanderslice’s set. Later, the singer coaxed up another half dozen of us for a sing-along version of “Me and My 424.” And, to kick off the encore, Vanderslice unplugged, came down on the floor, and played right in the middle of the room. Pretty folksy for a guy mentioned (by the soldier, listing for me other bands he’d seen lately) in the same breath as Coldplay and Radiohead.

But, then, John Vanderslice knows how to make friends. As another fan later told me, this show was her fourth of the tour (Vanderslice made sure she got some stage time as well). Perhaps, as his website says, he really is the “friendliest guy in indie rock.” I mean, in interviews he’s gone as far as sharing his puttanesca recipe (I tried it, JV, it’s delish), and he’s no less generous with his mp3s.

All this friendliness means that Vanderslice puts on a fun, cozy show, and, for me, a nostalgic one as well. The last John Vanderslice performance I’d seen was in 1999, when he was still with MK Ultra. At that show, there were (I’ll wager) no high school swimmers present, no swim-team moms or soldiers. Back then an indie show was populated by indie kids, and no one else. How it was that indie rock became mainstream I don’t know exactly—it probably has something to do with mp3s, YouTube, and MySpace (and the exposure they direct to deserving underdogs). It’s like I just woke up one day and Britt Daniel was scoring a Will Ferrell movie, and Modest Mouse was on the PA at Subway.

But, then, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Someone once told me that in 1997 (right after he had a song in Good Will Hunting) the crowd at Bumbershoot threw pennies at Elliott Smith, which, even as a rumour, shows how happy indie kids were to share their heroes back then. Times have changed: there were no naysayers at this show. And if there were any, and they’d heard Allison and her mom calling for “Exodus Damage” or helping Vanderslice pound out “Pale Horse” Friday, it would have been just plain cynical to complain.

Maybe I’ve still got a buzz from watching Stranger Than Fiction the other night, or maybe I’m just naïvely given to populism, but I think Vanderslice would agree that this bodes well for indie rockers. After all, he’s taken his own dip in the mainstream, touring with Death Cab for Cutie (themselves touring their first release on a major), and, according to the folks on his message board, a Cellar Door poster turned up in a recent episode of Gilmore Girls. With the Heidelberg show wrapping up his third European tour in a year, it looks like neither has hurt him. And neither has sharing his mp3s.

Fame, however, is not completely without its perils. “Somebody needs to write about post-tour depression,” Vanderslice quipped towards the end of the night. “I’m serious—it’s really tough.”

Maybe, but it’s probably a whole lot easier if you’ve got the right attitude.  As the record industry continues to litigate rather than innovate—the folks over at MySpace were recently sued by Universal Music Group for copyright infringement and the RIAA continues to attack music fans—it’s those that understand the way rock is changing and the importance of, like, actually being nice to fans that are really thriving. I’m tempted to spout off about how much (or little) music execs get it, and how important it is to remain kind and optimistic, but Vanderslice makes a better witness to the state of the rock world than I. In his online tour diary, the singer recently posted a quote from Sting on the state of contemporary music:

“Rock music has come to a standstill—it’s not going forward any more, it only bores me.”

Vanderslice’s response?

Are you a fucking moron? This is the golden age!

He’s right. It is.

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