21 Jun 2011: Rock n Roll Hotel Washington, DC
Finding a new band to fall in love with is a lot like dating. If you think you really like something you have to be willing to put in the research to figure out if the juice is really worth the squeeze. For instance: do you really like their whole musical wardrobe or was it just the one dressy song that turned you on? Do you want their albums for free or do you want spend your hard earned cash on them? Does talking about them get you excited? Do you want to introduce them to your friends?
As White Denim took the stage at the Rock n’ Roll Hotel in Washington D.C., I was still unsure if I was ready to commit to them. I really wanted them to be my new favorite band but I had only seen them once during a South by Southwest showcase in Austin, Texas. It was a short set on their home turf and they blew me away. At the time, I couldn’t believe what I had just seen – but I’ve had my heart broken before, so I decided to keep my cool.
Playing the first three songs of their new album (“Its Him!”, “Burnished”, “At the Farm”), White Denim ripped open their night in D.C., and instantly put me under their spell. The high energy, 21-song performance was an absolute balls-out rock marathon. Transitions between their new and old material were so impressively seamless that time itself seemed to liquefy; the only way to judge how far along the set had gone was to observe exactly how much sweat Josh Block was producing as he epically pounded the drums.
Without so much as a brief pause within the first 15 songs, lead singer/guitarist James Petralli, bassist Steve Terebecki, drummer Josh Block and guitarist Austin Jenkins relentlessly and masterfully destroyed ear drums, melted faces and knocked off socks. Considering some of the highly technical song arrangements on their albums, I was expecting to see some flubs along the way. Songs such as “At the Farm” and “Anvil Everything” have unique sectional composition, tempo adjustments and genre conversions that are often led by Petralli and Jenkins and require dual guitar layers – a structural facet that could easily pose problems on stage. But as simply as they grit their teeth at one another, Petralli and Jenkins flawlessly maintained dual dexterity throughout every note, solo and change.
While no one can accurately define what genre White Denim falls into, the bands studio work is often rebuffed for having “schizophrenic tendencies”, which is to say they have great chops but aren’t formulaic enough for cookie cutter critiques. However, based on their ability to bridge new and old songs on stage, it is very likely that James, Steve, Austin and Josh choose to define themselves as a live band. As such, they have the freedom to stitch their entire musical wardrobe together and create their collective identity on stage. One of the most interesting aspects about their song structures is the built-in pockets of freedom that provide them with the opportunity to improvise in a live performance. That said, this is no noodling jamband. Petralli and company enter these somewhat unrestricted sections with the intention of taking the crowd through a well-crafted spike of tension and release. This nuance is what makes them a thinking man’s band – they build risks in the studio in order to create on stage.
Upon finishing “Drugs”, the quartet took their first breath between songs in over 40 minutes. As Petralli made his way over to the drum kit to discuss what was next, the din of the crowd lowered. Upon sheer impulse I bellowed out, “GIMME THEM “KEYS”!” three rows from the stage. The entire band looked surprised – as if they didn’t expect anyone would know the name of a song – much less scream a request to hear one. From the back of the drum kit Petralli gazed through the stage lights and yelled, “You want them “Keys”?” He then nodded to his cohorts and immediately dropped into a phenomenal electric rendition of “Keys”, one of the best songs on their new album.
Throughout the performance it was very clear that these guys aren’t just musicians, they are music fans. One can barely recognize hints of their classic rock (Alabama) and modern influences (Black Keys) before the notion melts away into something uniquely White Denim. It’s unfortunate that their eclectic style forces them into indie territory because they deserve better. They rock way too hard to be playing for 200 hipsters in a charismatic dive bar.
So, is the juice worth the squeeze? You’d better believe it. White Denim is my new favorite band. I’m all kinds of excited about spending my money on their records and introducing them to my friends. Rock n’ Roll is back, thanks to them.
// Notes from the Road
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