The forever-perfect Mississippi Studios granted Vanderslice the ability to make every song sound great.
There’s just nobody like musician/producer John Vanderslice. In 2013, I attended a MusicFest Northwest day party at the music licensing firm Marmoset, which featured sets by a handful of great artists (though I was most excited for Vanderslice). After his set, my friend and I sheepishly went up to him, allowing me the opportunity to thank him for his contributions to the Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree. Vanderslice greeted me with more warmth than I’ve received from actual family members, thanking me profusely for my love of the album and responding to my dopey request for his publicist to set up an interview by simply giving me his own email address. To this day, this encounter remains an unshakeable experience in hero-meeting (and how the adage of “don’t meet your heroes” is sometimes total bullshit), made better by the fact that he’s a triple threat: superhumanly friendly and engaging, freakishly talented and a dynamite performer.
Not long after that Marmoset performance, Vanderslice had a near-death experience on the road that caused him to stop making his own music. That he has returned with this year’s excellent The Cedars feels like a triumph of spirit and even though six years is a long time, some things never change: before I could even show my ID at the door of Mississippi Studios, the man himself, who had been standing outside talking to other people, lovingly greeted me, gently patted my arm and thanked me, earnestly, for coming out to see the show like an elated host breathing a sigh of relief that people are coming to his party. He’d later come onstage and immediately joke about his dream of starting a cult, a post-touring profession I find myself wholeheartedly rooting for; he’s got the charisma for it.
When he’s in his element, a Vanderslice performance is less a concert and more a performance art piece—think The Blow’s Khaela Maricich, but with different anxieties—where the frontman splits his stage time between the music itself and gleefully rambling. This would fall apart, but Vanderslice is still a fantastic performer, and when he settled down to play Pixel Revolt’s “Angela,” he snapped into place, his lush fretwork doing the talking for him instead. He’s a producer first and foremost, and the forever-perfect Mississippi Studios granted him the ability to make every song sound great, be it solo, or with his backing band, show opener Meernaa, who joined him after three songs.
Having only seen him perform on his own, it was a treat to get to see him with other musicians, capable of rendering his glitchy hi-fi tendencies before an audience, all of which was helped by the invisible hand of their sound guy, Spencer, also in charge of live overdubs throughout the show. When gushing about the talent of Meernaa’s four members, he’d allude to a layer of creative freedom each had been given in feeling out his songs, his band free to explore his work. I struggle to think of other solo artists who, transparently, give their musicians the room to make on-the-fly creative decisions about how the material should sound. The end result is that every song sounded revitalized, even those from the only-now-three-weeks-old The Cedars, their bedroom glitchiness turned into fully entrancing rock songs.
In between songs, when he wasn’t planning post-show ice cream with the crowd or talking through the anxiety of asking Spencer to change the monitor mix, he let loose giddy, tangential monologues fit for a Relaxation of the Asshole-like compilation. He solicited anonymous questions from the audience: “What’s your fourth earliest memory?” “What is your favorite microdosing experience?” “What’s your favorite song you didn’t write?” (which allowed him to plug M for Empathy by Lomelda). He also regaled us with stories about being mocked for buying too much milk, spoke of anxiety dreams about his cats and tossed out one-liner gold like “I went to public school in Florida, you’re asking the wrong person.” He checked in with the crowd’s mood every few songs (“Is this still working?”), strengthening the image of a nervous host.
“We have two more songs. Encores are stupid, we know that, right?” he asked, to laughs, cheers and bargaining pleas from the audience. The set ended with further calls from Vanderslice for a post-show ice cream/dance party and an overjoyed rendition of Cellar Door classic “They Won’t Let Me Run.” He let the band play out for a minute, hopping down and running to the back, somehow eager to finish a show and go stand at the merch booth, excited to talk to anyone who wanted to chat. When I wrote about The Cedars earlier this month, I stated that it was uncertain why he’d returned to making music for himself again. It’s much clearer now: it’s likely that he realized that, when he started making his own music again, he gets to stand onstage, play songs and be one of the most magnetic people alive for an audience receptive to his awe-inspiring energy levels. May he never stop again.