By: Paul Kerr
Jim White :: 05.18.08 :: Berkeley Cafe :: Raleigh, NC
Jim White's music is hard to describe. Like all great artists, he's nearly impossible to pin down. His sound has been described as outer space alt-country, Southern gothic, folk-rock and every hybrid amalgamation in between. But at heart, he's a guy with a guitar, a pen and a lifetime of strange, moving and comical wisdom to share. His songs are heavy on tales of a life spent questioning his identity, pondering the place of religion in culture and his own life, and the quest to overcome the things that slowly suck away a man's spirit before he even knows he's sprung a leak. His lyrics provide real solace and inspiration with a level of strangely universal personal detail with the ability to capture the fear and longing of so much of the human condition. Much more than the sum of its parts, his music coalesces an ethereal sense of mystical marvel, lending emotional weight and psychic thrust to the world. Not one to ever let things get too heavy for too long, each of his albums contains healthy doses of humor and whimsy; his sadness tinged an incorrigible brightness that harbingers redemption and salvation. His recordings possess a miraculous mélange of sounds so intricate and unique you'd be hard pressed to identify the instruments used.
Like so many wanderers and seekers, the path of his life only makes sense when viewed in reverse. He's been a religious fanatic, film school student, New York City taxi driver, professional surfer, international fashion model, photographer, boxer, filmmaker and now a card-carrying musician. His travels and travails, which must have seemed so disconnected at the time, produced an accumulation of stories and characters that would later be immortalized in song. He'd already lived many lives when, around age 40, his demo tape landed on the desk of eclectic former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. The last ten years have seen the release of four superb records on Byrne's Luaka Bop label, each one capturing a wide range of sound and emotion, culminating with his latest album, Transnormal Skiperoo.
His biography explains the significance of the phrase: "Transnormal Skiperoo is a name I invented to describe a strange new feeling I've been experiencing after years of feeling lost and alone and cursed. Now, when everything around me begins to shine, when I find myself dancing around in my backyard for no particular reason other than it feels good to be alive, when I get this deep sense of gratitude that I don't need drugs or God or doomed romance to fuel myself through the gauntlet of a normal day, I call that feeling Transnormal Skiperoo." He jokingly told a Philadelphia crowd a few days earlier, "It's good to be happy, but it's hard on my career."
On this rainy Sunday night with a full moon hovering above Raleigh's Berkeley Cafe, Jim White made an emotional connection with the audience. The performance was part concert and part story time, with lengthy introductions before each song full of hilarious, emotional, personal anecdotes. He was accompanied by electric guitarist Patrick Hargon who added transcendentally moody textures and occasional background vocals, along with comic banter reflecting their long hours on the road and sympathetic personalities. The rest of the band consisted of the "Japanese Orchestra" of electronic devices including a drum machine and a loop pedal alongside White's harmonica and melodica.
Jim White by Robin Troward
The show opened with "Plywood Superman," a sad song about "aiming for high places" that you can't quite reach, with looping melodica adding a haunting, plaintive quality. "Now my old daddy, he worked in a factory/ and he used to beat on me with his mind, not his hands/ And though for ten years he's laid in that grave in Birmingham/ to this day I still hear him saying what a useless thing I am." White joked that he starts shows with sad songs and then moves on to downright pitiful. An older tune called "Jailbird" followed: "When I was young I was so hungry for oblivion/ My thoughts would linger like fingers in a deadly web/ But in time, as sorrow showed it's face/ in kind I learned to ache for grace/ To work and pray to one day be delivered whole, alive and free."
He then lightened the mood with the opening song from the new album titled "A Town Called Amen," asking "Will you lay in the arms of some sweet reverie a while?" These catchy, neo-folk songs have a surface simplicity belied by the complex subject matter and subtle musicality shining through under the facade. By juxtaposing intense lyrics over seemingly simpler sounds, the contrast and impact of both stand out and shine even brighter. Up next was a prime example of his ability to make a deep statement couched in the language of humor and witticisms. "If Jesus Drove a Motor Home" ponders the possibilities of humanity bonding together were Jesus to come to Earth simply to hang out and love on everyone unconditionally.
If Jesus drove a motor home
I wonder would he drive pedal to the metal or real slow?
Checking out the stereo
Cassette playing Bob Dylan, motivation tapes
Tricked up Winnebago, with the tie-dye drapes
If Jesus drove a motor home, and he come to your town
Would you try to talk to him?
Would you follow him around?
Honking horns at the drive through
Double parking at the mall
Midnight at the Waffle House
Jesus eating eggs with y'all
Not one to stay in any one mood for too long, the next two songs went back to exploring the sullen side of life. Religion plays a large role in many of Jim White's songs. Growing up in the heavily pious town of Pensacola, Florida, he says the choices were mainly between the churches and the bars. His own journey has taken him from intense belief in religion to vehement protests of the very same mindset. "Take Me Away" is based on the sad tale of a friend who found himself torn between the limitations of the church and the expansiveness of his own mind. Likewise, "Prisoner's Dilemma", the first of three unreleased songs finds death row inmates lamenting about "what the good Lord made me." The bouncy "Turquoise House" juxtaposed happy music with lyrics that ran the gamut from goofy to grave.
Jim White by Robin Troward
"A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados" is a slow, quiet song from his first album that like so many others features his own ruminations alongside the engrossing entanglements of characters that seem all too real. "Stranger Candy," the first of two more unreleased songs, reflected on a person's changing tastes as their life unfolds.
At the end, he told us one last story about how his life, so filled with confusion and sadness, has been redeemed by the love of his two daughters, ages two and nine. He shared his newfound gladness with the audience in song and story, and honestly hoped that all of us would someday find our own sources of profound cheerfulness. I hope it won't read as pure hyperbole when I state that this was among the most emotional, affecting connections between a performer and an audience I've ever been honored to witness. Goosebumps were honking up my arms as he closed the show with "Bluebird," singing about the blessedness he's found through the love of his daughters.
Last time home when I played this song
You said, 'Dad, it's sad, and way too long'
And I pulled you close and held you in my arms
Yes, salvation wears a thin disguise
'Cause I can see the heaven in your eyes
And I thank God them years I searched were not in vain
Finally found someone to love more than the rain
JamBase | North Carolina
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