“Don’t you dare look out your window/ Darling everything’s on fire.”
Words and music from a dystopian film but words that are uncomfortably close to us all right now. Dark days are ahead on both sides of the Atlantic today, days that will make us want to close the curtains and hide away, but we must not. Because though there is intolerance, hate, hurt and greed burning, there is also tolerance, love, warmth and understanding burning just as bright. Music stokes this fire; it sends it roaring 50 feet up into the air, as a signal to all of us that there is more that unites us than divides us. That friendly welcoming glow was no more apparent than in the crowd and on the stage where John Paul White was performing on election day.
The atmosphere was excited and eager, as if waiting for a long lost friend who you never thought you’d see again.
Well, the friend showed up, and performed ‘I Remember You’, acapella; with only White’s voice and the crowd’s intake of breath present. A song perhaps fitting for it was five years ago in London that White performed his last show as The Civil Wars. For an artist who not only said he was creatively burnt out the last time he was here but also who readily admitted that he at the time he was quite content to never play music again, this was quite an entrance; a coming into his own as a solo performer. A fact that was not lost on the audience who broke into thunderous applause at the end of the song.
From that moment on the songs from Beulah came to life. They soared high above the crowd, and like children picking feathers off the ground, we all got to take home a part of the evening with us; a line that captured an experience we couldn’t explain; a melody that left a lump in our throat; or merely the feeling of finally being understood in a room full of friends.
John Paul unfolded each song with his signature honesty, and vagueness about who or what the song concerns, allowing you enough room to find yourself and your life in a song. In the words of Emily Dickinson, “tell the truth but tell it slant”.
The only song White pulled back the magic curtain from was ‘Simple Song’; a song not on the record but from the compilation Southern Family by producer Dave Cobb. Though I had heard the story before, hearing him tell it in person with such profound respect for his Grandparents and his ability to see the love and beauty in such a tragic situation, had me in tears before the last note was played.
There is a track on Beulah, second from last, which since I first heard it on NPR has refused to leave me. Though to be honest, I prefer it that way and never would want it to leave. As soon as John Paul began playing the opening bars to ‘Hate the Way You Love You’ all I could do was stare dumbfounded with a stupid smile on my face. A song, which no matter how many times I hear it, with White’s hushed, delicate voice that at times barely seem to rise above a whisper, full of vulnerability and hurt, never fails to open my heart a little more. To hear the song, inches from the stage was something else entirely. The lines;
“And I hate the way you hold me/ Nervous as a cat/ Like I might get the big idea/ You’d forgive me just like that.”
Became even more poignant and moving. But you know what else? The songs played that night lost some of their sharp edges; the depressiveness and loneliness evaporated in the presence of a sea of friendly faces and man who so obviously enjoyed not only performing them but connecting with each of us on that night. Do not misunderstand me, it did not make the music any less meaningful or powerful. It actually made them more so because it showed the ability of a good song to change overtime, and how utterly magical that is to witness in person.
‘The Once and Future Queen’ was played with all its dreamy melancholy and dark tones. I previously wrote that the song drew to mind empty rooms and ghosts of the past. This atmosphere transcended the record and bled into Bush Hall on Tuesday night. The song has a familiarity, not because it sounds like someone else’s song, thought it does call to mind the Leonard Cohen and that quintessential mood his music and words create. But no, the song is more of a “have we met before?” moment. With the words, the music, the harmony feeling like a long lost memory.
John Paul was accompanied by Adam Morrow (Belle Adair) on electric guitar on some of the songs. The dark, depressive and groove soaked ‘Hope I Die’ was one of them. The song lost none of its emotional intensity or urgency, nor its hypnotic power that forces your body to move, with the stripped down arrangement. In fact, White’s longing and heartache became that much rawer, more visceral and brutal when sung at full volume without the softness of a string section.
White talked about his reluctant love for old country music, laying the blame squarely at his Dad’s feet, as well as his early love of metal particularly Black Sabbath. He then launched into ‘What’s So’. A swampy, Southern homage to growing up in that neck of the woods and the viewpoint it can instil. It neither romanticizes it nor does it berate it. It merely tells a story, leaving it up to the listener to decide which side she or he finds themselves on.
“Hole in the road/ Sun on your back/ Should the load/ Your ancestors passed/ Wear on your sleeve/ The virtues you lack/ But don’t get above your raising.”
He then proceeded to play Don Seals’ ‘All That Glitters Is Not Gold’, a song I had never heard before but which easily could have been mistaken for another story of Beulah. A torch song in which the narrator knows he may as well just be singing to the wind for all the good it will do but he’s going to sing anyway.
Watching John Paul perform, and talking to him afterwards, it quickly became apparent that like the character in Seals’ song, Beulah was made for him. The writing and storytelling was for him, the performing, though I am reluctant to call it performing because there was no performance to it, was all done purely to for his own happiness and fulfilment.
I read an interview John Paul did years ago when The Civil Wars were in ascendance, where he said that their first record was made purely for them; it was done from a completely selfish place, because them liking the music they were making was the only element they could ever really control.
“Every record I’ve ever loved they’ve made it completely selfishly and from the gut. The part that you can’t control is whether people connect with it and so there’s no point in trying. We love making this music.”
And therein lies the secret of why some music and some artists connect with us the way they do; because the communion is happening between hearts and souls. There is no opportunity for the waters to become muddied. It is pure, unadulterated openness and honesty on a sea of notes and words.