Matthew E. White
April 2nd, 2015
Schubas, Chicago, IL
One of the best books I’ve read the last few years was David Byrne’s biography/how-to hybrid How Music Works. In it, Byrne talks about how much space, economics, and touring inform music and recording, which is something many listeners (at least this listener) don’t often think about. For example, a band might decide not to include a trumpet in a song because it would be hard to recreate live since you don’t want to pay a trumpeter to tour with you just for one song. Also, a band might decide to keep an album spare or minimal so it’s easier and cheaper to recreate live.
While this might be the case for most artists, Matthew E. White frankly marches to his own drumbeat. While he is still playing mid-tier clubs and bars, the Richmond, VA native spares no expense or trick in the studio, making huge, lush records filled with strings, horns, and gospel choirs. On the stage however, this presents problems since you can’t tour and pay 30 people unless you are the Rolling Stones. When I caught Matthew E. White at Schubas in Chicago, despite touring with just three other members, he re-invented much of his music as a slick four-piece, building out his songs as big, groovy guitar jams.
The opener was a Brooklyn band called Wilsen, a four-piece who by their own publicity have said they are pushing the boundaries of modern folk. I wouldn’t agree with that by any means, and I’m not sure why folk needs any boundary-pushing, but led by lovely Londoner Tamsin Wilson, they were no doubt a pleasant opener in the vein of Wye Oak or Stars.
Fresh off the release of his second album Fresh Blood, Matthew E White took the stage and packed his set full of songs off his new album as well as some old favorites. As discussed previously, White’s songs are usually underlined by handsome strings, funky horns, and big spirited choirs, but the incredible musicianship of his four-piece band certainly helped make up the difference. The guitars would pick up the melodies or harmonies usually sung/played by the backup vocals or horns, and the way the lead, rhythm, and bass guitars came together were consistently captivating.
White and his band arrived late due to car troubles on their way to Chicago, but the band was incredibly open and sincere with the crowd in regards to the problem. Seemingly very reserved, White played a few songs before speaking to the crowd, but once he did, the crowd could not get enough. White and his bandmates had some of the funniest and most genuine stage banter I’ve heard in some time. Generally I’d rather have a band as James Murphy says “shut up and play the hits”, but White was a joy to hear and it was a bit of a peek into White’s joyful, humble, and humorous personality. His love for his hometown Richmond really shines through in his speech, and almost had me wanting to take a summer trip to Virginia.
Probably my biggest takeaway from seeing White live is how much his songs are built to be spread out and jammed out live. Most his songs have a very repetitive and meditative central chorus (“Eyes Like the Rest” and “Love Is Deep” being two good examples) that act as the skeleton for solos, bridges, and crescendos to be built around. And man can White and his band play. While White might be relatively new as a solo artist, it’s clear the guy’s been playing his guitar for decades as his band felt closer to a jazz quartet musically than your average indie rock band. In fact, they were probably the closest thing I’ve seen to a jam band the last few years, and I actually mean that as a compliment.
As for the show highlights, some of his best songs shined the brightest live. “Big Love” was the epic, playful anthem you would hope it to be, “Steady Pace” had the shuffling goodness of the record version but with more bite, and “Take Care My Baby” is the shimmering slow jam made to turn the lights down low. If you’ve never been to Schubas, it sort of looks like a mixture of an old honky-tonk dance hall, small-town chapel, and hip bar, making for the perfect venue for White’s good-time music that conjures up musical ghosts and the holy ghost (of gospel music).
White brought an old Richmond friend who now lives in Chicago up on stage to play saxophone on closer “Visions”, a song which I didn’t love before but do now. My new love is mainly because I’ll never forget the fury in which this old saxophonist played the song like it was his last night on Earth. White has built this universe in Spacebomb in which musicians love to play with him and give everything they got, and for that, White is worth catching any night of the week, whether it’s with 3 or 30 other musicians.
Can’t Miss: “Steady Pace”, “Big Love”, “Visions”, “Rock & Roll is Cold”
Can’t Hit: None