Jim White, Sylvie Simmons at Hill Country

IMG_5551It was no wonder David Byrne signed Jim White to his Luaka Bop label nearly 20 years ago. The two kind of look alike, have the same set of social hesitancy, and a penchant for original, unexpected and often delightful songwriting.

But White, who played a solo show at Hill Country BBQ this week, reunited that Byrne rejected scores of his songs as being too weird. “This from a guy who did,” and he went off in the “Stop Making Sense” arm-chopping move.

White, who conjures a swampy, lonely, Ecclesiastical-tinged, Southern gothic sound, often has his tracks used in similarly artful shows, from “Breaking Bad” to “Rectify.”

Minus a band, he was left to picking out old tracks and some from his new “Waffles, Triangles & Jesus” on an array of guitars played through a couple of vintage amps that seemed to hum throughout.

Before a modest but rapt crowd sipping beers at tables and chairs, White intermixed his brooding songs with long, spoken interludes. It seemed he took 10 minutes to tell the origin of the 1970 Impala he drove in the BBC Documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which introduced his singular music to many.

He said he doesn’t like to sing his hits any more — and that would include things like “Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi” or “Static on the Radio” — because that would bore him. But he included a couple of old favorites anyway, from

He used tracks and loops to back up a couple of songs and it wasn’t off-putting. He’s well versed for kicking these things on and off at the right times, and he uses them sparingly. The track on “Jailbird,’ he said, allowed him to play the harmonica solos.

White, now 61, sings more than he does the hushed spoken word often used on recordings. His wordplay is poetic and often disillusioned, though on tunes like “Plywood Superman,” his wry observations come off like John Prine.

He sung the praises of Johnny Dowd, the similarly outsider country poet (and loop user) who happened to play the room five months ago; the two had formed the onetime band Hellwood years ago, he played their singular  “A Man Loves His Wife” and its menacing lyrics: “He keeps a pistol in the drawer by the bed / It’s been loaded and waiting since the day they were wed.”

Unlike some performers who perpetuate a kind of cracked character on stage, White became more and more humane in his between song patter, talking about bouts with mental health and depression and family strife that included being kept from a daughter for most of her childhood, a scenario he addressed in his final selection, “Sweet Bird of Mystery,” a song he wrote to sing upon their eventual reunion.

IMG_5547White was joined for a couple of songs by Sylvie Simmons, the opening act with whom he’s touring. In some ways, her story is as interesting as his. A music journalist of some stature who wrote the defining biography of Leonard Cohen as well as books about Neil Young and Serge Gainsbourg, recorded her first album five years ago.

She accompanies her light, melodic voice with ukulele – giving an instant buoyancy to songs that are often less than that. She arranged the tour so that a local musician would join her at each stop. In D.C., though the planned Benjamin Schurr of Br’er begged off at the last minute.

The wordsmith knows a bit about song craft, in economical wordchoice in mournful songs colored with bright use chordings. Simmons had a tougher time with the ambience of the room, including flor pounding of the restaurant above and assorted sound snags, but she faced it all with good cheer.

And in addition to her own songs she did a song of her biographical subject Cohen, “Suzanne,” and one by White, who joined her on stage for “Walk Awhile With Me.”

 

 

The setlist for Jim White Tuesday was:

  • “Wonders Never Cease”
  • “Sunday’s Refrain”
  • “Epilogue to a Marriage”
  • “Jailbird”
  • “Alabama Chrome”
  • “Wash Away a World”
  • “Beyond the Spoken Word”
  • “Plywood Superman”
  • “A Man Loves His Wife”
  • “Reason to Cry”
  • “House of the Unknown”
  • “Hey! You Going My Way???”
  • “A Town Called Amen”
  • “Sleepy Town”
  • “Here I Am”
  • “Sweet Bird of Mystery”

 

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