White Denim, Dingwalls, London
The band that brought garage-rock back to life
Monday 24 November 2008
"I think maybe we should move to London," muses White Denim guitarist James Petralli as a packed Dingwalls roars its approval of the band's opening burst of energy.
Maybe they should: like labelmates The Hold Steady and, more pertinently, the Kings of Leon, they're one of a growing number of American indie bands received over here with a fervour usually accorded big-name stars, and might profitably use that acclaim as a stepping-stone to a more broad-based popularity. Who knows, their own "Sex On Fire" may be closer than they think.
One of the hits of this year's SXSW Festival, and recipients of the award for Best New Band at their hometown Austin Music Awards, the Texas trio have the happy knack of recasting the past in a form better suited to the future – a knack that never did the Stones or Hendrix any harm. Just as Kings of Leon put a new slant on the Southern-fried boogie-rock genre that had lain dormant for decades, so do White Denim revivify classic garage-rock, weaving the component threads of blues, punk and psychedelia into tough, steely cables that haul the spirit of bands such as The Standells, Blue Cheer and early Love into the present day.
For White Denim, this entails adding a dose of the currently fashionable math-rock virtuosity, which in the hands of such as Foals and Battles can make for pretty gruelling bouts of furrow-browed tune-dodging, but which in their case results in a freewheeling, muscular complexity that never neglects its melodic imperatives, even at the eye of the most turbulent storm of wailing, feedback-drenched cacophony. Their set may open in a relatively polite, subdued manner, with a few knuckle-knotting fretwork exercises, but within seconds it erupts into the first of several wild (but catchy) wah-wah guitar freak-outs.
But it's the sheer energy they produce that's the most instantly arresting thing about White Denim, an aspect their debut album Workout Holiday can't accurately convey, and which soon has the braver (and lighter) members of a delirious mosh-pit crowd-surfing. Drummer Joshua Block is quite extraordinary, his combination of power and polyrhythmic dexterity making him perhaps the closest modern-day equivalent to the likes of Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell. At times his drumming sounds like an avalanche of barrels tumbling down the Montmartre Steps, but somehow never losing the beat; and before they're two songs deep into their set, he's up off his stool, still pounding away mercilessly, as if he's received a sudden jolt of adrenalin and simply can't sit still.
Bassist Steve Terebecki, meanwhile, has something of the controlled intensity of John Entwistle, allied to the steely, funk-rock propulsiveness of a Flea. Like his bandmates, he performs as if in a trance – albeit, admittedly, the kind of trance visited upon the more enthusiastic members of a Shaker congregation; during one brief hiatus while Petralli re-tunes his guitar, Terebecki stands motionless, eyes closed, his fingers gently fluttering against his fretboard, the quiet, low-register thrumming perfectly evoking the air of barely contained excitement that pulses through the band's performance. With Petralli overlaying looped figures from his blond Gibson semi-acoustic with piercing lead lines often awash in wah-wah, the overall effect is of a weird, latter-day garage-punk hybrid of Cream and The Meat Puppets, combining the former's collective-soloing power-trio attack with the latter's lysergic whimsy and ability to slide between genres.
Their set includes many highlights from Workout Holiday, from the Beefheartian rumble-drum twitch of "I Can Tell" and the galloping punk-funk of "Shake Shake Shake" to the deceptive, arpeggiated African twinkle of "Heart From Us All" – think Vampire Weekend without the smugness – and their chunky, infectious debut single "Let's Talk About It", which brings a burst of encores to a close with Block still rattling away at a huge cowbell, as if reluctant to let go of the moment. He's not the only one: White Denim have that gift of arousing fanaticism in their followers, the kind of group that quickly becomes one's favourite band. If they carry on at this rate, they should be one of next year's big crossover successes. Don't miss them.
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