Matthew E. White’s music is a home-brewed synthesis of the most comforting music of the early 1970s: gospel, symphonic soul, rock, country and jazz taken at the comfortable lope the second song tonight calls “Steady Pace”.
Last year’s highly acclaimed first solo album, Big Inner, was made at his own Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia, where he’s assembled 30 musicians in an ideal musical community. White insists true 20 century titans such as Duke Ellington are the models he aspires to, and if the results on record have the suspicion of gorgeous pastiche, tonight he blows such doubts away.
White’s a big bear of a man, everything from his voice to his long hair and beard seeming soft. This gentleness extends to his music, but disguises its steely discipline. He begins his biggest UK show to date with Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country”, and the half-empty Empire suggests this country isn’t as ready for him as was supposed. That doesn’t dampen anyone’s mood, though, as White introduces a horn section brought in for the occasion, who add urgent blasts recalling blaxploitation soundtracks, and The Band’s sacred brass-backed live LP Rock of Ages.
I count six beats interlocking in “Big Love”’s polyrhythmic percussion, evidence of White’s other life leading a jazz big band. He borrows another man’s barbed pen to show he’s not just about musical sophistication, or the healing balm his warm, cushioned sound so often offers. Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” is about slaves being stolen to America, presented as a paradise. The racist snake at its core is at first masked by its lovely melody and deceptive words, but White’s electric guitar wails as if in protest as he declares: “We’re all going to be an American.” Some of Newman’s sombreness and veiled venom sinks in, readying us for a final passage of rising power.
A glitterball swirls during “Gone Away”, then “Brazos” follows a slave couple as they cross the titular Texan river towards the North. White’s fingers blur along his guitar’s vibrating strings as the song’s message of defiant faith and love in the face of evil ends in a precise psychedelic freak-out, which stops on a dime. It’s been just over an hour, with no encore. White has kept a sense of proportion in his beautiful, rousing music right to the end.