White Denim’s Balancing Act

June 27th, 2011

White Denim – The Bowery Ballroom – June 25, 2011

Remember when jam was a pejorative term? A synonym for wet-noodle meandering and sets that flopped incongruously between genres like a fish out of water? Well it looks like the jam is back and is as aggressive as a piranha. Take White Denim, out of Austin, Texas, which played to a packed Bowery Ballroom on Saturday night. Starting the set two minutes early with a tuning warm-up reminiscent of the Allman Brothers Band, this two-guitar-bass-and-drums quartet launched right into a 15-minute stretch of songs that was just a trippy light show and intoxicating cloud of smoke away from being a Grateful Dead show—if the Dead were an indie rock band from Austin in 2011.

Eschewing drawn-out free-form for bulldozer rock and roll, White Denim nonetheless packed as much improvisational prog-rock energy into their five-minute ragers as possible. The two guitars played off each other perfectly, raunchy fuzz vs. sweet melody with both guitarists taking turn in each role. The set spanned most of their new album, D, twisting in plenty of back catalog and road-less-taken exploration, songs often stitched together one after the other. At times it seemed like the apex of one tune exploded right into the start of the next, giving the set a feel of building toward some sort of impossible climax.

Each stretch begged the question: What do these guys listen to in the van? The music, with its odd-metered melodies and stop-start rhythms, at times evoked Frank Zappa and old Yes but with a raffish punk energy and the loud, bluesy rock of Zeppelin or Hendrix. It’s a tough balancing act to play the intricate, interactive passages at the volume and pace that they did, but for the most part White Denim pulled it off, guided by superlative rock drumming and molten bass. Those in the crowd responded gleefully, dancing and shaking their fists with the looks of people who couldn’t believe their luck that they’d discovered these guys just early enough. The climax may have actually come with “Drug,” off D, a bottled-up bit of White Denim at their finest. It was hard to imagine as the encore drew to a close with a drum-loop-feedback vamp that only 80 minutes had passed because there were enough musical ideas, guitar-drum-bass combustion and, yes, freak-out jams to last twice that long. —A. Stein