John Vanderslice took the stage with drummer/keyboardist Jason Slota, tuned his acoustic guitar adorned with a pointy headstock (this fact will make its relevance known shortly), and made some small talk with the audience. Standing out amongst his stories and anecdotes was a tale of an experience he had watching Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 perform in San Francisco. Apparently, that band fell victim to hecklers and bottle-throwers, and their guitarist responded by stabbing these aggressors with his guitar, which had a pointy headstock. Vanderslice then faced Club Congress and stated with playful menace, "...so don't throw any beer bottles." So much for oversensitive singer-songwriter bullshit; I was already converted without one note being played.
Of course, Vanderslice has been shattering the idea and the sound of the singer-songwriter since the turn of the century. He's toyed with electronics and orchestras, dressing the music up and stripping it down unpredictably. On the last stretch of a tour supporting his latest album Dagger Beach, Vanderslice and Slota, along with their indispensable sound engineer, turned his songs (which easily stand on their own as fine, fine music) inside out and upside down with clever arrangements and delivery that was equally reflective and flippant. Between the three parties, the sound was a remix happening in real time - Vanderslice name-checking dub legend King Tubby during a hilarious between-song instrument and effects tutorial was no joke. All of this added up to something not unlike Joe Strummer's early '80s hip-hop, reggae, and punk fusions with the Clash, or his final work with the Mescaleros. This is important - Strummer started off busking with an acoustic guitar, with the emphasis being on the songs, but in due time, seamlessly grafted the composition to the expansion of the instrumentation, as he discovered it.
Vanderslice's bizarre Ziggy Stardust-in-blue mullet was the first clue toward another of his progenitors, David Bowie. (One of the premiums for donators who funded the Kickstarter campaign to record Dagger Beach was a most likely unsanctioned full-length song-for-song covers LP of Bowie's Diamond Dogs, the album that killed the Ziggy character, and from which two songs were performed on this night.) Like Bowie, Vanderslice is a brilliant artist who shape-shifts personas before they can be pinned down or identified.
However, no history lessons were necessary to appreciate and love Vanderslice's eccentric, beautiful songs and voice, or the complex, bashing rhythms that perfectly framed them.