And so to the first gig of the year and the first of three shows we are going to at the Roundhouse for their inaugural “In The Round” season.
I wrote about Matthew E. White when his latest album, “Fresh Blood” was a Rough Trade album of the month last year.
This was the first time I had seen White live. He’d played a club gig in London when the album was released. I didn’t go for a number of reasons.
Firstly I was still wavering about how I felt about his music. I had struggled to get into his debut album, “Big Inner”. I hated the pun in the title and frankly still do. I found the music interesting and very clever but it didn’t move or grab me. I’ve revisited his first LP in the run-up to the gig and it still isn’t quite doing it for me. There’s some very good tracks but I find many of the songs a little too low key without the sense of dynamism that the “Fresh Blood” has.
Secondly, much of what I’ve enjoyed about “Fresh Blood” is the gilding of the lily with greater instrumental adornments. I didn’t think that would come across in a small club venue but when I saw White was playing the Roundhouse it seemed the perfect environment in which to see him.
Therefore White was making the most of the occasion by having a full blown choir on hand. Not any old choir though but the Deep Throat Choir, all the way from Hackney.
A women’s choir from East London, they’re rising stars on the festival circuit apparently. I’ve not heard them before. They opened as the main support and were excellent. Twenty five or so singers with a drummer and some additional percussion. They managed to be soulful with a real sense of fun. The numbers had the bulk of the choir providing vocal instrumentation (if that isn’t a contradiction) with individual members stepping forward for a lead part in the spotlight.
The venue was transformed by being set up in the round. I like the Roundhouse but it has quite a few faults. The steel columns add character but are visually intrusive. The flat floor offer poor sight lines. The bars at the back of the venue are a distraction. The round set up helps with all of these. Let’s hope that the format is repeated more regularly. A moment of hilarity ensued though when a steward next to me was using his mobile phone incessantly. I asked him to stop and he just turned on his heels and ran away – naughty boy!
White is the son of two missionaries. They went to work in the Philippines where they had just he had cassettes, a Beach Boys and a Chuck Berry compilation. The seven year old Matt used to blast these out when his mum and dad were out, singing them at the top his lungs and deciding that he wanted to be a musician. He returned to the USA eventuality and having learned guitar and drums by the time he was a teenager, he went to New York to go to jazz school. He cheekily asked Steven Bernstein who was a New York jazz trumpeter for a lesson in arranging. He booked an hour and ended up staying for 10 hours (as set out in this month’s Mojo magazine).
That day changed my life. It connected the dots between spirituals and slave songs, New Orleans jazz and blues, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and all that LA Phil Spector shit. Steven just opened my eyes to the ability to be a well-schooled, well-educated, skilful craft oriented musician.
These diverse influences were clear in what was a very good gig. The momentum built from a low key opening “Tranquility” through “One of These Days” to the first of his guests Flo Morrissey. They shared the vocals on the “Love Is Deep” and it was probably for me the most successful of the evenings duets.
She then took the lead for a rollocking version of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight”. “Big Love” got the crowd up and out of their seats and there was a gorgeous obscure Lee Hazlewood song, “Wait And See”, which White had performed at a recent Barbican tribute gig.
The band were on good form with a flexibility that recalled a more junior version of those 70’s American bands that crop up on the repeats of Whistle Test. White sang from close to the mike almost in an amplified whisper with the occasional full throated singing that brought to mind Randy Newman.
It was time for the second guest spot of the evening, with Rebecca Taylor of Slow Club joining the band for my personal favourite “Take Care Of My Baby”. White commented that Taylor was heading over to Richmond to work with him in the coming months.
White was well and truly in the zone by now but unfortunately the zone seemed to exclude Taylor for the song, who just behind his left shoulder rather than front and centre. She took over lead vocals for another fun run through of Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun”, joined by the Deep Throat Choir. This really added to the energy on stage but unfortunately it wasn’t until “Steady Pace” that the mix was really sorted and the choral vocals allowed to soar.
White’s long time cohort Natalie Prass joined for a few numbers too and even sang one of her own songs as an encore.
Again unfortunately Prass’s gossamer light voice which works wonderfully in a studio environment struggled to rise above the full throttle roar of White’s band and it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity.
White and the band were engaging and personable throughout and the old style revue aspect of the show kept the interest levels up. In many ways it was a fantastic and enjoyable gig. It was just a shame that it didn’t quite make the most of some wonderful female voices that were there on the evening.
Here’s Prass in a more sympathetic setting singing “Why Don’t You Believe In Me” from last night.