Matthew E. White’s music lends itself to interpretation. The songs on his debut album, 2012’s spry and soulful Big Inner, are chockfull of moments and sounds that harken back to an era before the 30-year-old singer was born: Stax, Motown and Sun Records are just a few of the reference points. White is a master of breathing new life into old sounds, so it should come as no surprise that he’s just as good at finding new ways to rearrange and reimagine his own music.
When I last saw the Richmond-based bearded singer and his band at Union Pool as part of CMJ 2012 back in October, he was in the midst of touring with the Mountain Goats and he was traveling with a robust horn section that did an impeccable job of replicating the dusky, jazzy inflections of the record. It was a little comical to see so many musicians slammed together on the tiny Union Pool stage—seriously, look at the picture—but White made it work. He’s a professional.
Last night at the Bowery Ballroom, he was given a lot more space, but he brought a much smaller band along for the ride. Opening with the soft, aching “Will You Love Me,” it was quickly apparent that this wasn’t going to be a night of horn-and-string-filled chamber pop. Instead, White and his band ripped into the louder sections of the song with a gnarled guitar part and a country-tinged swagger. The group has been touring this material for a while now and like any adventurous, talented group of musicians, it’s obvious they take a certain amount of glee in finding new wrinkles in them, stretching solos out into new shapes and trying out new arrangements just for the hell of it. That playful tendency grew even more apparent as the group jumped into “Steady Pace,” a brisk whirling dervish of a track from the record. At one point White and bassist Cameron Ralston even did some coordinated dance moves, shuffling back in forth with shit-eating grins on their faces.
The show had a improvisational, joyfully slapdash feel to it. The band played a freewheeling cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Ready For The Country” towards the beginning of the set. Around the midpoint of the show White offered to buy a drink for the whole crowd. The keyboard player made some serious closed-eyes-music-making faces while summoning synth flourishes that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Yes album. White is the type of musician who makes everything look easy, but towards the end of the set he revealed things might not be as easy as they look. After a recent European tour, White lost his voice. “My doctor gave me loads and loads of steroids,” he explained, saying he might be volatile if you approached him at the merch table but it would just be the steroids talking.
It’s hard to imagine White getting very angry. With his long hair and his bushy beard, he’s about as intimidating as the friendliest guy in a cult or the cool high school English teacher who lent you his Thomas Pynchon novels. But stripped of the horns and strings that adorn his albums, his music did take on a more aggressive, almost furious edge. Where Big Inner brings to mind a witty pop flamethrower like Randy Newman, the stripped-down set-up at last night’s show recalled the no-frills heroics of Neil Young or Bob Seger. Is that where White is headed next? I’m not sure. With a prolific talent like White, not knowing what you’re gonna get is half the fun.
All photos by Ryan Spears.