By Max Stewart • Photos by Carlus McCormick
If you happened to be standing outside of the Black Cat on April 20th and heard muffled versions of the rock riffage blaring from the amps inside, you might have thought you were simply listening to a fuzz-driven, garage rock band. The truth is that White Denim has such a wide range of stylistic influences that to try to fit them into a clean category would be doing them a grave disservice. It is true that the Austin band’s early releases – including Fits (2009) – reveled in loud, ass-shaking rock. These days, the band sounds like the Buzzcocks if they happened to employ Curtis Mayfield with vocal duties. If you were to pick a song out of a hat from the band’s catalogue, chances are you will hear influences not limited to Progressive Rock, R&B, Soul, Classic Rock, Lo-Fi, Punk, Psychedelic Rock, and even Jazz.
When the band rolled through D.C. while promoting their new album Stiff, loyal listeners may have noticed some fresh faces accompanying original members James Petralli (Singer / Guitarist) and Steve Terebecki (Bassist). These new members – Jonathan Horne (Guitar), Jeff Olson (Drums), and Mike St. Clair (Keyboard) – were added in 2015 following the departure of guitarist Austin Jenkins and drummer Josh Block, who both joined forces with another soul-inspired Texas musician: Leon Bridges. When Austin Jenkins joined White Denim in 2010, it marked a turning point for the band, one that I will simply categorize as White Denim 2.0. At this point, James Petralli’s song structures became more focused and fleshed out, and the songs really blossomed with a member dedicated full-time to axe duties. Now that Jenkins and Block have moved on, we have entered the realm of White Denim 3.0, marked by a replacement guitar player and drummer as well as a shiny new keyboardist. As a long-time fan, I was nervously excited to see how the newly-formed cast of characters of White Denim 3.0 would shake things out in a live setting.
The show kicked off with the 1960’s British rock-inspired “Real Deal Momma,” which showcased the benefits of adding keys during the live show as it allowed the rest of the band to explore new sonic territories. The opening keyboard riff is instantly recognizable and could have easily been off of The Doors’ 1967 self-titled release. Without skipping a beat, the band moved into the funk-fueled “Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah),” during which opener and Houston musician Sam Cohen provided additional guitar chops. There was never a dull moment during this rousing jam, where the three guitarists all took their turns flaunting their face-melting abilities. Petralli really set the tone for the evening during this number when he declared to the audience: “Be yourself… Try to have a good time!” We couldn’t help but comply, especially as the band moved into two more heavy-hitting songs from the new album: “There’s A Brain in My Head” and “Thank You”. Keys player St. Clair was helping to guide the ship as Petralli and Horne provided dual guitar duties during Stiff’s “Thank You,” one of the most feel-good, down-home moments of the new batch of songs.
After four tunes from the new record, the band got into the worldly-inspired “River to Consider,” which was a nice change of pace and a chance for the crowd to catch their breath. The band continued to play cuts off of their 2011 album D with “It’s Him,” where they managed to weave unfamiliar tempos, while somehow maintaining a comfortable and tight balance. Their psychedelic competence was evident in the oldie “Sex Prayer,” and at this point it was clear to me that drummer Olson will have no problem filling the void left by Block (while impressively adding his own special sauce).
The next three songs were a tidal wave of Rock ‘N’ Roll fury matched with an inherent Motown groove. “Anvil Everything,” which sounds like OK Computer-era Radiohead with psychedelic tendencies, continued to illustrate Petralli’s vocal aptitude. At this point in the night, Guitarist Horne was making himself known as the new sheriff in town, showing off his unique, off-tempo technique while proving he can shred like the best of ‘em. The band continued to push the new album with “I’m the One (Big Big Fun)”, which is an uncharacteristic song on the album due to its down-tempo vibe reminiscent of D’s “Street Joy”. Petralli had no trouble switching gears to incorporate his suave, falsetto vocals into a song that reeks of 1970’s R&B a la Marvin Gaye.
“Had 2 Know (Personal)” is the most ferocious riff on the new album, and during the live show it came blasting out of the gate at 100 MPH before eventually cruising at a comfortable pace thanks to a hooky, soulful melody. During Corsicana Lemonade’s “At Night in Dreams,” the guitar duties of the intro were somewhat muddied before eventually gelling to finish the song on a high note. The raw landscape of the band was palpable during 2007’s “I Can Tell,” a song that can only be categorized as progressive garage rock. The band seemed to really click during the jam sections of “Mirrored in Reverse” and “Cheer Up / Blues Ending,” both of which featured well-executed instrumental sections that cohesively worked within the structure of the arrangements.
The set closed with “Bess St.,” representing the climactic moment of the show in which White Denim was firing on all cylinders. The band’s energy was revving with the peaking set, which infected the crowd with a undeniable groove and moneymakers were a’shakin. During the encore, concertgoers got to witness what many caught on Jimmy Kimmel two weeks ago, a cover of Steely Dan’s “Peg”. This noble undertaking worked magnificently in large part due to Petralli’s vocal talents. Petralli is the unifying factor in the layered sound of the live unit, and the soul and R&B inflection in his melodies are the quintessential compliment to the band’s complexity.
You cannot categorize this band as merely a Rock ‘N’ Roll band (not even Rock ‘N’ Soul.. although that has a nice ring to it, don’t ya think?), since the band’s musical adaptability is so far-reaching. By the end of the evening, I left the Black Cat wanting more. Not to say I wasn’t satisfied, but I just witnessed the cohesiveness of the new lineup “work” during the latter half of the set and it was obvious that there were going to be many more magical moments. White Denim 3.0 solidified their potential to be the best yet, and I can’t wait to see how far they go.
Setlist: Real Deal Momma, Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah)*, There’s a Brain in My Head, Thank You, River to Consider, It’s Him, Sex Prayer, Holda You (I’m Psycho), Anvil Everything, I Start to Run, I’m the One (Big Big Fun), Had 2 Know (Personal), At Night in Dreams, I Can Tell, Mirrored and Reverse, Cheer Up / Blues Ending, Bess St.
E: Peg (Steely Dan cover)*
*w/ Sam Cohen