Streamers of dirty confetti

Listening Parties
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photo / Maryanne Ventrice John Vanderslice: The hipster least likely to 

“Not sure what really happened on that day,” John Vanderslice sings on “The Parade,” track 3 on his new album, Emerald City. If you weren’t completely sure what he meant, he then sings, “Got steel dust in a vial/had nice tiles in my pocket from tower two.”

September 11 has been a looming force in Vanderslice’s work since he scored a minor hit with “Exodus Damage” on 2005’s Pixel Revolt. It was a song that featured the lyric, “The second plane hit at 9:02.” (There’s a point where you get used to the nausea-inducing shifts between the extremely cryptic and frank and realize that behind the lyrics there’s also some amazingly well-put-together music.) The 9/11 sentiments returned full force on the new album, whose recurring lyric is “lightning…from the sky.”

So I was understandably excited that JV (as he’s been known to go by) was coming to Austin on the evening of September 11 to play at The Parish.

Tickets were door-only, but John Vanderslice isn’t really at that level of popularity where he can sell out The Parish. There were easily 100 people there, but the night still felt intimate, thanks in part to mellow (but awesome) openers The Bowerbirds and the stage setup, which placed JV merely inches from drummer Dave Douglas, keyboardist Ian Bjornstad, and newcomer on violin and bass, Daniel Hart.

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photo / slightlynorth John Vanderslice in Seattle 

The majority of the 90-minute set focused on Emerald City, though Pixel Revolt and 2003’s Cellar Door were fairly represented with three songs apiece. The violin lent a bittersweet touch to many of the songs, and there were three-part harmonies (!!!), but the arrangements never felt cluttered. In fact, during the middle of the set, JV had his band members leave one song at a time (Dave, then Ian, then Daniel) before playing “Numbered Lithograph” solo, then inviting them back on one song at a time (Dave, then Ian, then Daniel) until they were all in place for a full-band performance of “They Won’t Let Me Run.” The exposed performances especially showed how skilled each of the performers was, and I thought that the drumming was especially crisp. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever been to one of those shows where the drummer is shoved to the back of the stage, muffled like they’re playing in a giant tube sock.

I’ve seen JV play a few shows in Austin, and this is by far his best band. It was also the best performance I’ve seen him give. He seemed genuinely joyful, complimenting his bandmates’ playing, joking around with the audience. At the end, the band came down into the audience (joined by The Bowerbirds) for an acoustic, Arcade Fire-style sing-along to “Keep the Dream Alive.” The song, whose chorus is also its title, was irrepressibly joyful as JV spun around with a huge grin on his face, hugging audience members, completely unfazed by the flash photography around him.

I guess I was expecting something more somber, what with the occasion and all. It seemed like, after dedicating an entire album’s worth of songs to a national tragedy, he might think to acknowledge it in some way on its sixth anniversary. No one can deny the oddness of hearing him sing “…that day…” to a crowd, knowing full well that “that day” is this day. Who knows – maybe he dealt with it in private. Maybe he didn’t want to be a downer. Or maybe when he sings, further on in “The Parade,” that there’s “nothing left to commemorate,” that’s the truth. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I’m glad he dashed my expectations. Whether he meant to or not, what he expressed to the audience was that we shouldn’t spend too much time dwelling on the past when we can bunch up in an intimate venue, hug each other, and keep the dream alive.