(A to Z suggests listening to Vanderslice's Hopeful Weather Jams Muxtape while reading this post.)
When John Vanderslice played the Billiken Club nearly a year ago, it was a stripped-down, borders-free affair: the singer-songwriter was touring with his drummer, Dave Douglas, who found a way to man a Moog synthesizer and sampler amid drumbeats. For his return to the Saint Louis University venue, Vanderslice brought his three-piece backing band, allowing him to flesh out his loaded, intricate songs. The resulting show sounded more like a rock & roll concert while retaining the carefree, easygoing vibe of a song-circle.
The show began with “Kookaburra,” the opening track from last year’s Emerald City. It was immediately clear that Vanderslice has surrounded himself with apt, sympathetic musicians. Bassist/violinist David Broecker and keyboardist Ian Bjornstad stacked their harmonies delicately on top of Vanderslice’s reedy voice. Douglas was back on the drum kit for this tour, adding percussive layers and bubbly synth with aplomb. The backing band allowed Vanderslice’s electric guitar to take a more prominent role: The sharp upstrokes of a song like “Exodus Damage” rang out with a fierceness against the reverberating electric piano and squelchy bass lines.
After ending the proper set with “White Dove,” Vanderslice transformed into the Pied Piper of Indie Rock (again!) and led the crowd into a grassy clearing just outside the Billiken Club’s doors. The acoustic set was a fitting end, with all the hushed intimacy of a campfire sing-a-long. Bjornstad toted out a miniature concertina and Douglas played floor tom and glockenspiel along with “Letter from the East Coast” as Vanderslice circled around the area, ensuring that everyone could partake in the moment. The four-song set concluded with “Nikki Oh Nikki” (the song he played when he pulled the same trick at last May’s show), and the band retreated back into the club for hugs and autographs. It may sound like an overly cuddly or precious move for a 40-year-old man, but the gesture is in line with Vanderslice’s vision of hope and connection amid the darkness and isolation of the modern world. Plus, who doesn’t like sing-a-longs?
-- Christian Schaeffer