"Blues and jazz aren’t dying, they’re dead" is one of the most common misconceptions of the modern music industry. The statement may be true for purists of those genres who take up a derivative form of late greats like Miles Davis or B.B. King, but it completely neglects the current and more evolved sounds of bands like White Denim, a group that is undoubtedly rooted in blues.
Based out of the indie rock mecca that is Austin, Texas, the four piece centers around its two core members, vocalist–guitarist James Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki. White Denim released several full–length albums and EPs since their formation in 2005, and this August, they are set to put out the highly anticipated Performance. So, when $15 tickets went on sale for an intimate pre–release performance at Johnny Brenda’s, the show quickly sold out. For those who missed out, worry not, the band will be back in Philly at Underground Arts this October.
Opening with the psychedelic power–blues riffs of Stiff’s opener, “Had 2 Know (Personal),” Petralli sang the classic sad tale of scorned love. The first song was one example of what soon became the theme of the night: an energetic breath of life into the foundational elements of age–old blues standards. Mixing in songs old and new from Stiff, Corsicana Lemonade, and their first EP Let’s Talk About It, they rallied through the charged setlist until reaching “Backseat Driver,” a riveting and as yet unfamiliar song from Performance.
With their last two albums charting ever higher in the U.S. and the U.K., this humid summer night in the upstairs room of a bar felt like a show for the true fans, those dedicated to the genre–blending sound of White Denim before they inevitably reach the next level of fame in late August. The excitement of the new music was tangible among the diversely aged crowd. Even though they played three unreleased songs that no one knew the words to sing along to, the hot riffs and thumping bass kept everyone in the room dancing.
But a detailed song–by–song analysis of a live performance never really does justice in translating the full experience. Rather, taking a step back to observe the night as a whole better exhibits the context of this band in the current scene. Some may lump them in as a kind of nostalgia act, sounding as if they are from a different era in a way similar to artists like Ty Segall, Parquet Courts, or Foxygen. But to end there would be a gross simplification.
Maybe side effects from the tumultuous political news of late helped frame the night in this light, but White Denim’s energy and love of classic blues–rock underlined the importance of not only remembering, but memorializing the culture that precedes our time. Packed together with all of us in that little room, the band seemed to be whispering a secret message of rebellion in their 60’s counterculture–influenced sound.
The well–rounded 23–song setlist justified the lack of an encore, leaving the crowd satisfied with a finale in “Bess St.” The star of the night was the slightly distorted sound of a well–plucked jazz guitar, always keeping some form of a melody together even in the muddiest of songs.
White Denim no doubt sounds, at times, like Steely Dan, Howlin’ Wolf, and Cream, but they resist becoming copycats. Seeing them live proved that their nostalgia is in no way tainted by that poisonous quality of perpetual daydreaming. Instead, they remain rooted in the present, looking back to the chaotic culture of 50 years ago to learn new coping mechanisms that they can apply today.