"This is a good-looking shirt," says Jim White modestly. "By the end of the night, one of you will be wearing it. It's for sale."
He's not wrong about the garment in question. A beige cowboy shirt with lavish five-button cuffs and a white horseshoe motif, it looks fine on a beanpole like Jim. He's been doing this for a while now, auctioning his shirts for charity: one raised around $200 for a child with leukaemia, and he suggests that bidding on tonight's item should start at £15, the proceeds going to Doctors Without Frontiers. If I were a few pounds richer and a few pounds slimmer, I'd consider a bid. In the event, it goes for £60.
Perhaps the most distinctive Southern Gothic stylist in Americana music, White sings quietly and hypnotically about trailer-park losers, female serial killers, crystal-meth addicts and holy-roller evangelists, often prefacing his songs with rambling expository yarns like the one about how a religious nutjob in his hometown of Pensacola found fame by dragging a wooden cross around. Then a rival turned up, but with a little wheel on the foot of his cross, which precipitated a theological schism in the local church. Finally, a third believer simply towed his cross around behind his motor home: hence White's rumination "If Jesus Drove a Motor Home".
White once had the idea of mixing hillbilly music with "mad Arab trance music" in an attempt to bring about world peace, but gave it up when it made everyone angry instead. So now he sticks closer to his native country stylings, picking gentle guitar figures and using an array of pedals to trigger drum tracks and loop phrases of vocals, melodica and harmonica, while Andrew Small plays slimline double-bass and Curt Helling adds some of the subtlest, most tasteful lead guitar lines I've heard in ages.
White punctuates the set with readings from local papers, which illustrate the quirky nature of Southern life – a 911 call about the Moon, the mysterious appearance of kitty litter in a Mustang convertible, stuff like that. But it's the songs which snare one: the eerie haze of "Still Waters", the homicidal chill of "The Wound That Never Heals", and the abject misery of "Christmas Day", which, he reveals, was once voted second-saddest alt-country song ever in Mojo magazine: "I thought, goddamit, what do I have to do? Behead someone?"
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