Matthew E. White

Sunday 21st April | Thekla, Bristol

Words by Thomas Spooner

When I first heard Matthew E White’s Big Inner I got over-excited. It had been a while since I’d heard a man whisper so sweetly over such seriously soulful grooves. I listened to it some more and the hooks went deeper – flesh, muscle, cartilage, bone, heart – as this music subtly tore its way into my being. Then I got around to listening to the lyrics and I heard Jesus’ name mentioned – a lot. This disappointed me, which in turn made me disappointed in myself. Why should someone expressing themselves through the language of religion bother me? Especially when the arrangements burst so bright with all the joys of vintage Stax: the plethora of instruments, the soft crooning, the jazz undulations.

It was an odd reaction, I admit, but somehow I felt duped. Seduced by soul, I had ignored the presence of Him. Illogical too as I love old gospel music: crackly exaltations rising up from black wax spirituals, Sister Rosetta letting rip an unholy guitar solo after praising the Lord on high. I think my problem was that I found White’s music funky, inappropriately so. Music this funky should be about sex and drinking and dancing. As it turns out Big Inner was about this stuff too, I just got momentarily distracted by the J-bomb.

Evangelically blessed or otherwise, Matthew E White seems happy to be playing Bristol tonight. The fact he is performing on a boat pleases him no end as did wandering around Stonehenge earlier in the day. Having experienced the best of the West, White and band busy themselves in recreating the complex countrified soul of Big Inner.

Touring an album released in the States all the way back in the summer of 2012, you’d expect them to find the material passé, itching to move on but this is not the case. White’s arrangements, a crowning Spacebomb achievement, are full of invention and force these highly talented musicians to push themselves. Trey Pollard’s pedal steel is particularly impressive tonight.

It would of course be foolish to ignore jazz-arranger supreme White standing proudly at the helm, a gifted guitarist and a man possessed with a fantastically hushed voice. Although struggling when called upon to raise his voice, White’s purring on tracks like Will You Love Me is a delight. For all their technical ability, it’s good to see that the band don’t take themselves too seriously. At one point White and bass player Cameron Ralston indulge in some ridiculous synchronised dance moves to the delight of the crowd.

Much of White’s debut is played tonight. Big Love with the refrain of “I am a barracuda. I am a hurricane. I am the same old shit,” is a deliciously heady slab of psyche-funk, while Hot Toddy is like having your head pressed into a fisherman’s shoulder, a ball and socket of beard and Aaron jumper; a hug-clutch on a cold night, all suppressed sadness and false 40% proof warmth. Meanwhile their cover of Neil Young’s Are You Ready For The Country? is an exercise in just how much groove you can inject into the most unlikely of places.

The Thekla crowd never quite gives itself fully to White’s gospel but not once does its interest wane. It is a Sunday and White’s funk is more the slow-shimmying heart-warming kind than the Funkadelic lose-your-shit variety. When White tells a story about his gentle stalking of Randy Newman, people hang on his every word. White and his music are quietly remarkable, understatedly brilliant. I am won over. Even through Brazos’ mantra-like repetitions of “Jesus Christ is our Lord,” it is my body that is swaying and not my mental finger wagging. 

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