John Paul White, along with Joy Williams, was The Civil Wars – the all-conquering duo who filled the void when Plant and Krauss stopped gigging their Raising Sand album. The Civil Wars lasted for a similar timespan, coming to a crashing halt after a gig at the Roundhouse in 2012. No longer talking to each other, all future gigs were cancelled and a band hiatus called. During this a hugely successful second album managed to be released, but White declined to help promote it and soon after their parting of the musical ways was announced with the cryptic comment that it was due to “differences of ambition”. In subsequent interviews neither party has really clarified what that meant, and the general consensus that they’d had an affair that had ended badly remains neither confirmed or denied. John Paul White set up a studio and record label and seemed happy to promote the likes of Dylan LeBlanc – at least until now. Somewhat unexpectedly John Paul White has returned with a new album – Beulah – which came out this year and it is this that brought him to Bush Hall for only his second UK gig since the breakup of the Civil Wars. So, that’s the back story, but what the capacity crowd at Bush Hall experienced was something quite different from what had gone before – different enough to bring to mind the Barretism that we should “forget that old band”.
John Paul White appeared alone on stage as the impeccably coiffured and suited Southern Gentleman, at first singing a cappella before playing a trusty small bodied acoustic guitar to pick out the visceral Black Leaf. It’s hard not to hear on Beulah – a collection of songs that came in a flood over a few days after a couple of years of songwriter’s block – a not so subtle musical revenge on his erstwhile musical partner, and Black Leaf plays that card in spades. Over discordant notes White sings that he’s “so bitter in my heart and in my mind / she’s a quitter / but I guess we’re both quitting now” before adding “oh well there’s always the second time around”. You don’t have to be Freud to cut through that and tentatively suggest that maybe, just maybe, John Paul White has some lingering resentment about The Civil Wars. This is rather underscored as he pointedly never actually says the old band’s name in any of his between song introductions and asides – even when he expresses his gratitude to the crowd for turning out as he’d half anticipated an attitude of indifference and a “you had your shot” in response to the album and tour.
Things took a livelier direction once White’s guitarist/lap steel side-man joined him on stage. Part referencing another White in its title, The Once and Future Queen is everything one could wish for in a “this is all over” song – this is more than a gentle chiding as White, to a restrained tempo, tears apart the fairy-tale of love singing “I never really loved you anyway / at least not unconditionally / like subjects love the once and future Queen”. The restraint serves only to make it that more effective as a put down. Restraint is not a term that’d be applied to Fight For You, which stomps along with almost glam rock chords before launching off into a soaring, swirling guitar solo that has space rock written all over it – somewhere in his self-confessed metal past John Paul White must have been listening to Hawkwind. It’s a song that challenges another to make the same effort to cling to White that he’s willing to make to cleave to them – and as it segues directly into the downbeat Hope I die it’s patently clear that this mutual effort was a scarring failure “I won’t bleed forever / over time the wounds will turn to leather / If I survive / I will reach for someone new”, there’s added bleakness in the appended thought “Hope I die, before I do”. This was the love of a lifetime, and this has failed. There’s an almost Neil Young – in his deeper acoustic emotional moments – touch to the song as performed tonight, compared to the album recording which is dominated by the rhythm and string sections which, of course, aren’t here at Bush Hall. This musical decluttering allows John Paul White’s intense vocal to hit an even higher emotional resonance.
If this all sounds a bit intense, White reveals a lighter side as he talks of how the new album came to be, and of his resurgent love of country music – after years of rejecting a thorough familial grounding in the genre in his youth. The songs though remain shot through with a stormy passion, and a streak of self-loathing which comes out on the painfully raw The Martyr, played with just a thrumming acoustic guitar line. Even the set closer, a cover of The Electric Light Orchestra‘s Can’t get it out of my head, sits perfectly alongside this material – it’s by Jeff Lynne so of course it has a catchy melodic chorus but this only serves to disguise the bleakness of a man who has seen true love “Midnight, on the water / I saw the ocean’s daughter / Walking on a wave’s she came / Staring as she called my name” and lost it “And I can’t get it out of my head / No, I can’t get it out of my head / Now my whole world is gone for dead / ‘Cause I can’t get it out of my head”. It is, surprisingly, the perfect way to close the set – the melancholy tempered into something wearily joyful. It’s the sound of acceptance. The single encore of No-one will ever love you – a song he co-wrote for the TV series Nashville – is John Paul White in full country mode singing with a beautiful soulful voice that tugs at the heart strings in all the right ways. After an hour of exemplary music the rapturous applause was more than deserved, all that was wanting was just a little more. Get that second solo album written soon John Paul !