Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett Prove the Power of Friendship

Sets by the duo at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Oakland’s Fox marked the beginning and end of the tragic North Bay fires.

(Zack Ruskin)

When Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett played the final day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the first embers of the North Bay Fires had yet to burn. On Wednesday, Oct. 18, Vile and Barnett returned to headline the Fox in Oakland as the flames that have ravaged much of Sonoma and its neighboring lands finally came to rest.

Of course, we are creatures that live to find meaning in coincidences.

Vile and Barnett — two respected solo artists who have teamed for Lotta Sea Lice, a new album of backyard jams — have nothing to do with the local infernos that have left many without homes, schools and jobs. However, seeing their sunny afternoon set at Golden Gate Park would stick with me in the following weeks as the last time I could taste the air without the stench of smoke.

By the following morning, the flames had arrived, and with them, a dreaded period where the most many could do was simply to wait and see.

At the Fox, Barnett and Vile kept things light. The two are clearly close friends, finishing each other’s sentences not only on new duets like “Over Everything” and “Continental Breakfast,” but in between songs as well.

Barnett, an Australian musician with a unique gift for hyper-literate lyrics, also peppered in a few songs from her backlist, including the sterling “Depreston,” which Vile complimented with a wandering guitar outro. Many people know Vile as the former guitarist of The War on Drugs, but in the years since, he’s created a solo career that highlights his off-kilter stoner folk and dazzling guitar solos.

They met as mutual admirers before creating an album together, and the strength of their friendship and camaraderie hit close to home at a time when many were finding out just exactly what their neighbors were made of.

The stories of strangers pitching in to help one another, the cavalcade of donations that poured into shelters throughout Petaluma and Marin, and the reporters who risked their safety to give frequent updates on the progress to contain the fires are the stuff you hope to hear but are still amazed by when it actually happens.

For some, perhaps Barnett and Vile’s show at the Fox was the first chance they’d had to press pause on a situation so omnipresent that all one had to do was inhale or look skyward to be reminded of its severity.

Joining the duo’s backing band, The Sea Lice, was Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss. Underrated as one of the best percussionists in rock, Weiss was lauded by Barnett several times throughout the evening, and relished the chance to beat her kit when things skewed slightly heavy on an encore that featured Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin” and Barnett’s “Avant Gardener.”

There is something worth noting in how Vile and Barnett were able to bring a fresh note to their back catalogues by teaming together and allowing each other to infuse their trademarks into the tracks. There is nothing wrong with artists who stay in their own lane, but for some who may be on tour for the umpteenth time, playing roughly the same setlist as they have for years, finding another musician to link up with can work wonders.

It did in this case at least.

The morning after the show, blue skies has once again returned to San Francisco. Cars caked in thin layers of ash were washed by a desperately needed rain. Of course, things had only returned to normal for those lucky enough to avoid the fire’s path. For the rest, normal is no longer an option.

As it relates to Barnett and Vile, that’s a wonderful thing, as the partnership they’ve made only serves to make each artist stronger. Normal is the enemy of creativity.  May they continue their quest to be anything but.

For the victims of the North Bay fires, they will have to find their strength elsewhere. Hopefully community efforts will continue, and the next terrible thing likely lurking around the corner won’t let us forget what we owe our Bay Area brethren in need.

Perhaps we can take a page from Barnett and Vile, and make something together that we never could alone.

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