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John Vanderslice Kicks Genre

John Vanderslice gives the singer/songwriter genre a huge kick in the ass.

You go to his show expecting a little sensitive strumming, some smart cultural allusions, a heartbreaking clarity about love and loss. You get all that, don't worry, but set to the biggest, baddest-ass drum lines you've ever heard. You knew JV liked hip-hop, didn't you? And Robert Lowell? Well, he likes them together, and you will, too, so get over it.

For this low-key 10 o'clock show in Western Massachusetts' college country, Vanderslice has brought along Page France, a five-piece indie-pop band out of Delaware formed around songwriter Michael Nau. Page France's music is earnestly joyful, punctuated by big, thumping bass-drum thuds and hand claps, but mostly it takes a back seat to Nau's lyrics and delivery. The songs are engaging, apparently simple, but exuberantly sung in Nau's breathy, interval-jumping style, guitars strummed in 4/4 patterns and bass booming up from the bottom. The band performs the best songs from last year's Hello Dear Wind: the wide-eyed Sunday school oddity "Jesus" ("Jesus will come through the ground so dirty"), which has, more than anything, earned Page France the Christian tag; "Chariot," with its hand-clapped celebratory air; and the two-chord surrealism of "Elephant." There's an eccentric sweetness to these songs, with their images of cherubim and trampolines, windy days and junkyards, set against a steady thrum of folk-rock chords. Like the singer's voice, the band's songs are all poised between vulnerability and playfulness, a delicate sweet-sour balance that is charming enough, but never mesmerizing.

Vanderslice takes the stage after a short break, a full rock 'n' roll band in tow — David Boecker on bass, David Douglas on drums, and Ian Bjornstad on a finicky but wonderful Wurlitzer keyboard (more on this later). Last year's Pixel Revolt was a relatively restrained affair, setting Vanderslice's personal turmoil and doubts about the war against a minimally limned musical background. These were not the kind of songs that made you want to dance. The live show is intended, from the beginning, to be a whole different animal, drawing from all of Vanderslice's solo albums, and infusing his songs with an aggressively rock, goofily exuberant sense of fun.

This is a band that splices flamenco-style handclaps and groove-heavy bass lines into "Plymouth Rock," a roaring Apes-like organ blast into biting love-gone-wrong songs. There's a huge, block-rocking hip-hop beat behind "Up Above the Sea" from Cellar Door, and even "Exodus Damage" has an outsized Western-swing flavor that wasn't there on the record.

With "Exodus Damage," Vanderslice announces that the regular set has ended, and if the audience wants the band to play more, we'll have to yell for encores from now on. He's kidding, of course, but for the next couple of songs, some guy in the front yells "encore" every time, which seems to tickle the band. These following songs hopscotch through the Vanderslice discography, the jangly "Keep the Dream Alive" from Time Travel Is Lonely, "Cool Purple Mist" from Life and Death of an American Four-Tracker, and the tom-tom-battering "Heated Pool and Bar," from Cellar Door, which establishes Douglas as the hardest-working drummer in the singer/songwriter genre. There's some band chit-chat about whether Vanderslice looks more like "a young Homer Simpson" (don't see it) or a Christmas elf (um, yeah, sometimes), and then Vanderslice introduces his band.

The Wurlitzer has, by this time, ruptured a reed and lost a note, causing Vanderslice to launch into a somewhat sordid story about the assault and abandonment of a used Wurlitzer the previous night at Middle East. Bjornstad's instrument, it turns out, is always breaking down, and replacement parts are expensive. A fan in Boston had approached the band and said he had a used Wurlitzer he'd sell them for $50. They could take the reeds out and use them for replacements. They had hastily removed what they needed and left the shell of the instrument at Middle East. The story ends — with some description of Bjornstad having to return to the club and ducking abuse from people who could not believe someone had left a broken Wurlitzer there — just as the instrument is fixed, and the show goes on with a hard-rocking, percussive version of "Pale Horse."

Vanderslice briefly mentions the tour-only Suddenly It All Went Dark, a collection of acoustic versions of Pixel Revolt songs, before launching into a mini-set from this album, luminously beautiful versions of "New Zealand Pines," "Trance Manual," and, saving best for last, a thunderously dramatic take on "Radiant With Terror," the Robert Lowell adaptation.

The set closes with the jangly-sweet "Time Travel Is Lonely" and a far more jagged version of "Angela," from Pixel Revolt. I never noticed on the record that Vanderslice borrows the signature girl-group drum beat from "My Boyfriend's Back" for this song. It makes perfect sense, though, in the context of the perils of pet-sitting, the opposing attractions of freedom and safety, and the siren call of the road.

John Vanderslice is on tour again, bringing a full band to put meat on his intelligent and fragile songs. If your cage door opens, even for a minute, you should go. — Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, May 3, 2006]

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