White Denim / The Districts
By David M. Goldstein | 13 March 2014
“Uh, it’s Dave right?” said a heavily bearded gentleman to my left whom I could not immediately place. Turns out it was indeed a guy who I had met four or five times at a mutual friend’s poker game and I remembered was married to a woman whose job consisted of being a kind of publicist/handmaid to Angela Lansbury (really). He was rendered unrecognizable by facial hair that he didn’t have six months ago, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he subconsciously grew it just for this gig—large beards being a near necessity amongst men that populate White Denim concerts. Three mixed drinks deep, he proceeded to tell me how most new-ish bands not named White Denim bore the life out of him, but he adores these guys, and though never having seen them live before, imagines they’d be good. I told him that this was a fair assumption. He needn’t have worried; he was wrapping me up in a bro hug and bellowing a combination of F-bombs and “this is TIGHT!” into my right ear halfway through the second song.
But such reactions are to be expected during White Denim shows. When one witnesses the twin DNA coil guitar leads of James Petralli (son of late ’80s Texas Rangers catcher Geno Petralli!) and Austin Jenkins snaking skywards amidst Petralli’s soulful bellow and the bong rattling bass bombs of Steve Trebecki, it’s possible to imagine you’ve entered a late ’60s wormhole featuring an alternate universe Grand Funk of which Homer Simpson would no doubt approve. Their latest album, 2013’s lovingly askew Corsicana Lemonade, is a classic backyard barbeque record, equally informed by the Beatles, Allmans, and Thin Lizzy. Partially recorded at Jeff Tweedy’s Chicago loft, Lemonade has garnered White Denim’s most positive press and largest concert crowds to date, irrespective of their label’s curious decision to release it the week of Halloween, long after most outdoor grills have been covered up.
Early attendees were treated to the Districts, a Philadelphia-based quartet of young’ins (average age: 19.5) forced to take the stage at the ridiculously early time of 7:35; this to keep in line with Webster Hall’s obnoxious weekend policy of getting the rock bands off the stage as soon as possible to make more money off of the 18 year old Molly-kids that get shipped in from North Jersey. Anchored by the full-throated yowl and even bigger hair of frontman Rob Grote, the Districts traffic in a brand of crunchy country-rock that aims for the sweet spot between Gold (2001)-era Ryan Adams and the rangy indie-fuzz jams of Built to Spill; a noble pursuit for sure. They currently lean a little too heavily on loud/quiet/LOUD power-chord dynamics, swallowing Mark Larson’s guitar leads and obscuring the otherwise solid songwriting exhibited on their recent EP. They’ve got charisma in spades and a singer with both a voice and lyric writing ability of someone several years his senior; once they tighten up their live dynamics and learn to trust their songs, they could be awesome.
The White Denim portion of the evening kicked off with a somewhat low energy version of “Pretty Green,” Corisicana Lemonade’s first single, and probably the closest these guys get to a conventional Southern rock song, despite the gentle licks under Petralli’s vocals being very Steely Dan. Things picked up considerably with a clean segue (more on that later) into “At the Farm,” an intricate merry-go-round instrumental off of 2011’s D that re-imagined the Allman Brothers as Yes-indebted prog-rockers, and called to mind another band notable for incorporating progressive rock virtuosity into a country-rock template: Phish. White Denim’s rising reputation as a skilled live act coupled with increased exposure in decidedly jam-rock centric publications have garnered them comparisons to Trey Anastasio’s merry band, and there’s definite similarities—mostly on account of both bands comprising extremely talented musicians that cull from numerous decades of rock and roll while never failing to emphasize song craft. But unlike Vermont’s Phinest, White Denim doesn’t so much reinvent their studio catalog onstage as remix it; the songs are played relatively straight, but incorporate a variety of composed drop segues to string everything together in one glorious, Rube Goldberg-esque package. Rest assured this approach makes composing setlists a nightmare, but enabled the band to play a two hour set while only coming to a complete stop on a handful of occasions, and the audience fed off the momentum accordingly.
White Denim’s ability to cram chops-heavy compositions into the form of catchy, four-minute rock songs remained undiminished by the brisk pace of their performance. The second half of “Anvil Everything” was played in time signatures that I’m not entirely sure have been invented yet, and oft-played D standout “It’s Him!” contained enough squiggly lead licks for a decade’s worth of Blind Melon singles. Both songs were instantly memorable and packed with hooks—a reminder that this band that still values songwriting above all else. Petralli’s supple, blue-eyed soul vocals have grown in confidence with each successive album release, though Caucasian blooze-rock ballads remain the one thing his band doesn’t do particularly well, as evidenced during “Street Joy,” one of the few moments in the evening where the energy level flagged.
The set was two hours on the nose, with less than a handful of complete stops, and no encore (none necessary, but likely a concession to the Molly kids). White Denim have yet to put out a live album in wide release; the closet they’ve come is the rather jaw-dropping Live at Third Man Records (2011), a vinyl only performance that singlehandedly justifies Jack White’s continued existence. While their recent studio albums are excellent in their own right, clearly this is a band that needs to be experienced onstage, and the Webster Hall performance did nothing to alter their burgeoning reputation as a must-see. Treating a rock show as an opportunity to showcase their catalogue as a dramatic suite through a variety of segues, it was a concert worthy of a thousand bearded man-hugs. I’m still somewhat shocked I only received one.