Matthew E. White – The Bowery Ballroom – May 13, 2013
What is it that Teddy Roosevelt said? “Speak softly and carry a big stick”? Well, Matthew E. White sings softly and carries a big stick, namely his backing band. It’s hard to call a six-piece outfit a small band, but for Virginia Beach, Va., native White, who’s played and recorded with literally dozens of musicians at a time, the sextet he played with at The Bowery Ballroom last night was a decidedly slimmed-down affair. Still, when you’ve got a guy who’s equally up to playing some delicious countrified pedal steel as he is a rollicking piano, and a bass player who grooves like he backed Herbie Hancock in his Headhunters prime, in addition to the drummer, percussion and keys players locked into your sound, six is a big enough stick.
The group walked out to Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America” which, on Wonder’s birthday, seemed plenty deliberate for White, who matches soul with a Wonder-esque funkiness and whose music is accented by his personal faith. The set got moving with “One of These Days” and the ultragroovy “Steady Pace,” from last year’s Big Inner. These were prime examples of White’s style: soft, heartfelt vocals that melted into a steady buildup by the band, typically climbing to a surprising, ecstatic off-center climax. The band’s country-funk chops were on full display in a perfect cover of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country,” featuring the highlight pedal steel playing in a set filled with them. Although his vocals sounded great, White confessed it was a heavy dose of steroids that were keeping his sick throat up to the task and warned the side effects included extreme crankiness and irritability. Of course, he said this in his sweet, give-me-a-hug demeanor. It seemed perfect that White’s self-proclaimed “drinking song” was called “Hot Toddies” and featured a gorgeous, quiet minimalist section before a punchy finale. This is a groovy party band almost in spite of itself.
The heaviest hitter of the set was “Big Love,” a White masterpiece, mixing all the elements, in one high-energy heart-pumper, the band playing it loose, showing the clear comfort of musicians who know they’ll all get back to the same place, regardless of the different paths they take along the way. The set closed with a powerful one-two whack from the stick—“Gone Away” and “Brazos,” the latter a 10- minute mountain of a song that built upon a percolating bassline that appeared to lack a beginning or an end. It’s one of those songs that seems fit for a hundred musicians in a church in Virginia to do its climactic coda justice, but on a Monday night in NYC, White and his band were plenty big. —A. Stein