Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Matthew E. White: Seeking Transcendence

Matthew E. White & Band, with 
guest Steven Bernstein(second from left)
Using a line from an artist's most famous song in the same year as one of their biggest comebacks shows some serious spine. So when Matthew E. White sings "And this loneliness, it won't leave me alone/It's such a drag to be on your own" - lifted from Jimmy Cliff's Many Rivers To Cross - you know that despite the laid back vocals and soul-ballad tempi of many of his songs, the guy has a steely artistic temperament. Personally, that's just how I like my sort of mellow folk/rock/gospel/psych/pop/Americana artists to be. Jonathan Wilson has it, Father John Misty has it, even Jeff Tweedy has it. Alex Chilton? Hell yes. Without that toughness that kaleidoscopic swirl of influences becomes the master of the artist instead of the other way around. The fact that White gives Cliff songwriting credit simply proves White is a gentleman - no surprise as he's from Virginia.

The song with the Cliff couplet is called Will You Love Me and White opened his NYC debut show with it at Mercury Lounge on Monday, August 20th. He took the stage with five compatriots: Trey Pollard (piano/pedal steel), Gabe Churray (keyboards), Cameron Ralston (Bass), Pinson Chanselle (drums), and Scott Clark (percussion). The make-up of his touring band was of serious interest as his terrific album, Big Inner (Get it? He helpfully explained the pun to us), is lavished with plangent strings and plush brass arrangements. Obviously, adjustments would have to be made to translate that wide canvas to a touring ensemble. While I'm not going to say I didn't miss those glorious embellishments, I think White made the right decisions, with the percussionist being an especially canny choice.

White has been on the VA scene for quite some time and told the crowd that the album had been in the works for two years. However, aside from an album release show in his hometown, this was his concert debut as a leader. That was only slightly apparent in the group's sound, which, while rich and full, didn't 100% gel. But it was close, close enough that with a little road testing, it should be a thrilling experience.

Ultimately, I think White seeks transcendence and Big Inner delivers that in spades. But getting to that place in the studio over years of recording is different than standing on stage and transporting a room full of strangers. Fortunately, a busload of VA fans were in the room to provide a level of comfort. Also, the joy and friendship between the players was beautiful to see, especially when Steven Bernstein showed up with his slide trumpet and joined in on the last song. Bernstein is well known for his playing and arranging with groups like Sex Mob and the Lounge Lizards, and has been an inspiration and mentor to White.

During the epic Brazos, which also closes the album, the groove locked in and Bernstein brought the heat on his horn. White put his head back, closed his eyes and chanted the circular lyrics. He was willing himself into that far away space and taking us all with him. It was a privilege to go along for the trip.

After the show, I stopped by the merch table and picked up Big Inner and the accompanying 7". While paying, I overheard a guy say "I just couldn't believe I was watching Matt on stage and when he started swaying I was like, I've been watching that sway for 15 years!" Thanks for letting the rest of us see you sway, Mr. White.


  1. Anonymous1:20 AM

    From the guy by the merch table--welcome aboard! those of us who've been around for 15 years or so are happy to make room for a few more.

  2. Anonymous3:57 PM

    Just got my vinyl copy of Big Inner in the mail yesterday! The letter from Matt it included gave me goosebumps. The fortune-telling fish, on the other hand, said I was fickle. Well then.

    It'll be interesting to see how the group's performances evolve/gel. I'll definitely be checking in via YouTube during his October tour.