Shuffling onstage bearded and besweatered, emerging Richmond, Va., singer-songwriter Matthew E. White was the embodiment of the warmth he committed to tape on his debut record, Big Inner. White was backed by an impressive nine-piece band including a full horn section, two keyboardists, lap-steel guitar, and a rock-steady rhythm section—Richmond musicians all. Nine-large, but for White, also composer and arranger for the avant-garde big-band jazz group Fight the Big Bull, the nonet is a slimmed-down version of the near-30-person lineup that appears on his solo debut.
Very little of the filigreed sound of Big Inner was lost in White’s stage show. Each member of the band did double duty, filling as needed with handclaps, backing vocals and shakers. White’s searing guitar solo at the climax of “Big Love,” instead of clearing sonic space, saw the band crowding around him with shakers and counter melodies, urging him to that one ecstatic note that lives at the top of the fretboard.
With “Hot Toddies,” White’s ode to whiskey and tea, his barely audible fingerpicking and baritone mumble lulled the audience—in the most pleasant sense of the word—until the simple chorus of “Hot toddies, Lord, we’ll have a good time” arrived, buoyed by a raft of horns. The sweet but simple refrain is one of White’s greatest strengths as a songwriter. If the emotion is simple, he’ll put it simply. It is his arrangements that flesh out the emotion, as with the extended Bitches Brew coda of the song, featuring White singing, “Who likes winter? We like winter.” Taken as a whole, the song creates a vivid film of ice on the window, blurring with each sip, until the speaker stumbles from the rocking chair to a pleasantly buzzed slumber on the couch.
Despite White’s penchant for love songs, the specter of loneliness is never far away. When the band eased into “Will You Love Me,” a standout from Big Inner, White swayed to the microphone and whispered honeyed supplications men would be wise to write down. A specter crept in on the chorus via the borrowed line “This loneliness won’t leave me alone,” from “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” but White’s solipsism only lasted a moment before he was lifted by the swell of the band to the realization, “Darkness can’t drive away darkness/Only love can do that.”
White closed the evening with “Brazos,” a 10-minute-plus composition that opened with a soulful shuffle until the halfway mark when Cameron Ralston’s thumping bass steered the spaceship for the great gig in the sky. The long coda was anchored by White chanting, “Jesus Christ is our Lord/Jesus Christ is your friend,” in between intermittent shouts from the band and well-placed horn stabs. Whether or not you take Jesus Christ as your personal savior, one could not help but feel the love.