Jim White In Philadelphia

Hey, Record Boy!

    Anybody else out there who has heard of Jim White? For those who haven't, where do I start? He's a musician (guitarist/singer/songwriter) and writer and filmmaker transplanted from the North to Pensacola, Fla.; a true American original, defying any categories, despite being tagged as "Southern Gothic" (whatever that is) or alt-country. His storytelling music is a crazy-quilt combination of dark spookiness, humor, eccentricity, intelligence, and even sensitivity and non-cloying sentimentality. Imagine if Lou Reed had been born a gentile in the land of Elvis, living in a mobile home where the temperature and humidity hover around 90. Add a bit of Beck for some goofiness, and a swampy taste of Daniel Lanois or Creedence in its "I Put a Spell on You" and "Run Through the Jungle" mode. He has a definite darkness - many of his songs could be turned into film noir -- but tempered by sweetness, surprising optimism and the wink of an eye.

I've been dying to see him since June, when out of nowhere he practically magnetized me to the TV screen doing the quirky, toe-tapping "10 Miles to Go on a 9 Mile Road" on Letterman. I didn't know a one-song TV gig could be so mesmerizing. Then, in June, only an hour after we arrived at our cabin in Canada, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Co.) radio did a glowing profile of him that made me pissed at myself for not trying harder to get his most recent CD, "No Such Place" before going away. (It's on David Byrne's label, Luaka Bop, as is "Wrong Eyed Jesus" and the EP "Gimme 5." He even looks like he could be Byrne's younger brother.)

So it was a thrill to at last catch White on Aug. 15 at the North Star Bar in Philly, with a criminally small crowd of others who are under his spell. Talk about your Warped Tour! He sang about the occult, tornadoes, serial killers ("Wound That Never Heals") and being "Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi" and  "God Was Drunk When He Made Me" in a straightforward set lacking most of the recording-studio gimmicks of "No Such Place." (Not that the electronic gimmicks are intrusive; the CD shimmers and shakes and sighs like nothing I've heard before.) But he could be touching and heart-stabbingly melancholy, too, on "Corvair," or singing of homesickness, especially missing his soon-to-be 3-year-old daughter. 

And after the show, he perched on the edge of the low stage and leisurely talked with fans as if they were old friends on his front porch as he sold CDs and T-shirts and signed autographs. Turns out he hasn't been Jim White all his life; he used to be Mike Pratt, who was a model, a surfer, a NY City taxi driver, a drug addict, a Christian fundamentalist. But he changed his name for artistic and personal reasons -- schoolmates who have heard his music or seen him in concert were surprised when they learned who Jim White really was. He talked sincerely of the aching loneliness of the road, but not in the oh-poor-me clichés of a rich rock star. He's torn between home and making a living, playing his heart out for "14 people" (an intentional exaggeration, there probably were about 60 people there, still not many) when he could be home with his little girl and fiancée.

But those of us who were there greatly appreciated the sacrifice, even as he thanked us for staying out late on a work night. When was the last time a performer showed that kind of consideration for his or her listeners?

            Paula Goff