Union Transfer was packed to the ceiling Saturday night for a stellar show by Kurt Vile and Sun Ra Arkestra. The concert closed a thirty-date tour that Vile told us felt like a “total breeze,” and completely natural, even though it’s “been a minute” since they’ve seen the road – their last tour was 2019 for Bottle It In, and this one follows (watch my moves), the new album out this spring on Verve.

Friday and Saturday made a comfortable homecoming for the Violators, shared with old fans and a timeless band from their hometown in Sun Ra Arkestra. (Friday featured Chicago’s Natural Information Society.) These ever-discovering jazz explorers always roll a dozen deep, even more than six decades along in their journey, some bandmates still living together in Northwest Philadelphia’s Germantown section – meanwhile, KV centers himself and his family in neighboring Mount Airy on his new album. The Arkestra’s latest release, Swirling, came in 2020, more than twenty years after their last studio album, and was recorded at Germantown’s Rittenhouse Soundworks. Ninety-eight-year-old Marshall Allen led the expedition on alto as usual, while James Stewart’s tenor got a special spot since he featured on the Violators’ “Like Exploding Stones,” on the record, in the video, and now on the gig, too.

Sun Ra Arkestra | photo by Ellen Miller for WXPN

For all the differences in age, ethnicity, industry and costume on that stage, it seemed obvious enough to ask: What do these bands have in common? Are they just weird neighbors? I kept coming back to the question, even as a longtime fan of both, and kept hearing more. They both bridge gaps between purist and divergent sides in their respective styles — in the Arkestra’s case, the old swing band side and the free improvisation side (like between Fletcher Henderson and late Coltrane); in Kurt’s case, the steady singer-songrocker side and the harsher experimentalism (between his beloved Neil Young and Thurston Moore). I feel somehow the Arkestra get codified as far-out fanatics and their straight-ahead big band work gets discounted, while oppositely for KV, the straight-ahead rock songs get the airplay and his dreamier experiments (“Red Apples,” “Take My Advice”) get filtered out of his popular image.

But they have so much to share in these in-betweens, between the rocket landings and the loading zones in my town. Of course they’re unafraid to make some unexpected noise; they smile. A penchant for clamoring onomatopoeia, too, like “zoom! zoom! zoom! zoom! up in the air” on “Rocket No. 9,” an old tune to hear anew on Swirling, and any number of shoo’s and wiggle’s on (watch my moves). They write songs that describe departure, play and sing them to make it real. They take serious care to keep their minds open, up, and unfiltered in a way that traditional musicians could call “childish” – KV once referring to himself as the Childish Prodigy – and mean it like an insult, but this is a strength in children. It keeps you ready to discover more and more, as old as you grow. And it brings us this literal, relatable take on the stream of consciousness, where you don’t have to explain it all, just look and tell us what you see.

Kurt Vile | photo by Ellen Miller for WXPN

The Violators took the stage in a sea of sultry purple, under echoing electric loops and roars from the packed house. Vile himself said only a few words on the night, mostly gratitude for the Arkestra, how content he felt being back with a new record, “thanks for coming,” and “I love you.” The set spanned so many years of studio and road time, from new singles and album cuts – “Palace of OKV in Reverse” to start, my favorite “Cool Water” at the close – back to the “classic Violators cut” “Hunchback” and the hurtling “Freak Train,” both from 2009. My other highs were the solo acoustic “Peeping Tomboy” and solo keyboard “Goin’ on a Plane Today” in the quiet spotlight. Early on, the four-piece band also covered Silver Jews’ “Punks in the Beerlight” from 2005, which Vile told us they played every night this tour as a tribute to singer David Berman, who passed in 2019.

Find the Violators’ full setlist, photos from Saturday, and the new video for “Like Exploding Stones” with the Arkestra’s James Stewart below. Kurt Vile’s latest album (watch my moves) is out now on Rough Trade, and his U.S. tour is now concluded. Read WXPN’s conversation on this new record here. Sun Ra Arkestra’s latest record Swirling came in 2020. Marshall Allen and other members also contributed to Rehearsing Philadelphia in April of this year.

Kurt Vile
Union Transfer
  • Palace of OKV in Reverse
  • Loading Zones
  • Punks In The Beerlight
  • Bassackwards
  • Hey Like A Child
  • Check Baby
  • Peeping Tomboy
  • Goin on a Plane Today
  • Flyin (like a fast train)
  • Say the Word
  • Wakin On A Pretty Day
  • Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)
  • Pretty Pimpin
  • Hunchback
  • Freak Train
  • Like Exploding Stones (featuring James Stewart)
  • Cool Water
Kurt Vile - Like Exploding Stones