The gospel according to Matthew E. White

Usually the opener’s job is to warm up the crowd. To set the mood, to entertain the early arrivals while taking up time until the room is full and the opener can safely take to the stage. Okay, there are other reasons for being an opener, but pretty much none of the opener definitions you could come up with could prepare you for the explosive performance Matthew E. White gave on Friday, Nov. 29, opening for The Mountain Goats at The Grey Eagle.

White’s sprawling, eight-man band filled the stage, with the singer-songwriter front and center. He was (disappointingly) not wearing a white suit (he’s often pictured in that sort of a getup). He (not disappointingly) opened with “Will You Love Me.” With a band involving three horns and two percussionists, it would be easy for a song (let alone a set) to get out of control. Unless the song and/or set belonged to White, in which case control is almost like another instrument in the mix.  White is more than capable of singing or playing loud, but he’s kind of like the parent who never raises his voice. Everything is mellow and precise until just the right moment when he eases the volume up just a notch and it actually means something.

On “One of These Days,” another track from White’s just-released debut, Big Inner, an undulation seemed to ripple through the band. Due both to their in-sync-ness and the tidal pull of the song’s rhythm (try to listen to one of White’s songs and not dance), the body wave built with the church revival feel of the music. As the horns climbed, White lifted his vocal just for a moment into its upper register.

“This one’s kind of groovy, so don’t be afraid to move around and find a partner,” he said by way of introducing “Steady Pace.” More rocking and bluesy that the earlier offerings of the evening, the song had echoes of gospel chestnut “Do Lord,” paired with a psychedelic warble of keys. And lots of auxiliary percussion.

Each song bubbled like a simmering pot, ready to reach a rolling boil, but not quite. Or, ready to reach a full-on tent revival climax. That pinnacle came with “Big Love,” White’s extended jam (sort of) that nods to both The Stone Roses and Blaxsploitation soundtracks. The organ snarled, the drummer grinned his way through a serious percussion workout (the obvious joy of the band is contagious), the guitar player traded in strings for tambourine just in time for a rhythm breakdown that lasted, like, five minutes until the full band returned with an absolute wall of sound. A kind of blow-your-hair-back blast that, then, stopped dead on a dime.

The final song of White’s set was “Brazos,” a return to the reigned-in pacing and controlled horn build. “Brazos” could be considered gospel (it mentions Jesus) but feels like a slow burn rocker. Spacey keys sample tempered the ‘70s influences until, at the perfect moment, the whole band let it rip into a singing/dancing/clapping/feeling-the-spirit rapture. So much so that John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats jumped on stage for the final crazy moments. Even the headliner couldn’t resist the charms of this opener.

Photos by Rich Orris.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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