Jim White’s songs are the tip of an iceberg of painful lives he’s lived and seen. The 56-year-old Floridian is a neat man of small movements, and his music too has incremental, gentle power.
His clipped, grey-flecked hair and distinguished features could have walked out of a photo from America’s conservative 1950s. But the first words he sings suggest a bigger, badder world, as the song “Cinderblock Walls” rises out of looped guitar twang, introducing a quiet man who’s ready to violently explode, or simply die, exhausted. As White calmly shows us the fingers mangled by an electric saw aged 25, or recalls writing his first album aged 38 while “sitting at home waiting to die” of peritonitis, or that “existential breakdown” in Amsterdam, he surely knows how his song’s hero feels.
White’s best known for Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, the BBC documentary in which he was a guide to a Gothically grotesque American South, based on the similarly named album released by David Byrne in 1997. More recently, his music helped soundtrack Breaking Bad. “It’s a blessing to be here with you in this house of God,” White, a one-time Born Again Christian who disavowed his faith says in this small, dimly lit old church, “and not be burdened by notions of the divine.” But wrong-eyed Jesuses and other miraculously strange sights are scattered through true tales which seem to have taught him an enduring though Godless faith.
You could almost weep with laughter at some of those stories, though their truth means they take disquieting turns, as when, following the revelatory sound of blues music down Amsterdam streets, he finds an almost limbless Thalidomide victim making it. His own slide guitar scrapes and squawks, looped beats ticking like a grandfather clock, as he sings “A Good Reason to Cry”, about running from religion. But then there’s “The Way of Alone”, an acoustic ballad of small mercies.
White calls himself an “itinerant musician”. Tonight’s longest, funniest, autobiographical yarn is about his epic effort to make a Morcheeba support slot, across a serial killer-haunted America he knows like the back of his wounded hand. He was playing to 20 people a night there last month. Sell-out British crowds like tonight are one more mercy he’s grateful for, in a somehow innocent, noble journey that needs it.