Appropriately enough, ‘Ol’ 55′ was playing on the intro’ tape as John Paul White prepared to take the the stage at a near- full Islington Assembly Hall, unusually set in an all seated configuration. ‘The Hurting Kind‘, the new album by White, is very much in the same frame as the Tom Waits classic -big emotions and big melodies. It’s an album that suggests that John Paul White has shrugged off some of the post Civil Wars angst of his previous album ‘Beulah‘.
The trio – adding pedal steel and electric guitar to John Paul White’s own guitar and vocals – commenced proceedings with a statement of intent with the dramatic ‘I Wish I Could Write You a Song‘. It swells with waves of pedal steel and guitars building in intensity as White’s vocals headed for the operatic heights that have brought frequent comparisons to Roy Orbison in reviews of the new album. It’s a feeling that continued into ‘My Dreams have all Come True‘, which again finds room in this country ballad for those soaring vocals. It’s a beautiful tragedy of lost love with the ironic twist that “My Dreams have all come true / Like all good nightmares do“. Slightly ruefully, White commented that this was not going to be an evening overly full of happy moments.
Not all of the new material conforms to this love-lorn template. Although ‘The Long Way Home‘ mixes in sentiments of loss and yearning to its upbeat melody it is clearly, as White explains, really about the inescapable call of the touring life and has the positive message that it might be a while but he will most assuredly be back “Here I go once again / Down the road that never seems to end / if I don’t or if I do / I’ll be damned my whole life through” before adding the promise that “I ain’t leaving / I’m just taking the long way home to you”. The sad but pretty ‘She’s got a Heart like a Kite‘ sounds a little as if White has been flicking through Mike Nesmith’s lyrics notebook. And good as White is at writing beautiful and melancholy love songs there was a sense on ‘Beulah‘ that he was at his best when adding some bite to his lyrics. Fortunately he reminded us of this side with a pairing of ‘The Hurting Kind‘and ‘The Good Old Days‘. The first of these White described as about abuse although he noted “I didn’t plan it“, it just unravelled that way, whilst the second is “usually dedicated to my home state of Alabama.” And here’s the bite – ‘The Good Old Days‘ in particular recasts White as a protest singer, with this band sounding not too far from Graham Nash’s mid-Seventies finger pointing as the need to be forever looking backwards to some imagined golden age is questioned, “Something in the air / the deaf can’t hear / the blind can’t see / nostalgia everywhere / saying let’s get back to how it used to be,” and found wanting as he sings, “the past is ash and dust / our best days are in front of us.” It’s glorious. ‘James‘ is a powerful song on another level – written for Glen Campbell but using some facts from White’s father’s life – it is an aching depiction of the cruelty of Alzheimers, not a topic that often gets addressed in song and yet something which is so common that it will eventually touch most lives, one way or another.
This streak of serious social comment was brought to an end by the knowing and ironic ‘This isn’t gonna End Well‘, a huge and dramatic love song of betrayal and broken vows which punctuates any pomposity with the clever chorus line,”There’s walls around the walls around my heart / I’m too scared to finish what you start / …/ who are you fooling a little heaven could be hell / when you kiss me I can tell this isn’t gonna end well.” There’s no greater contrast on the evening than following this song with the stark ‘Simple Song‘, dedicated to White’s grandparents. It’s opening lines are “You’re gonna die / you’re gonna die” but this is sweetened with “younger eyes are going to cry”. This heralded a return to White’s older songs with, at last, a song from ‘Beulah‘ – albeit the slow and gentle ‘Hate the Way You Love Me’ – and then, with the surprise announcement that, “It’s been about seven years since I’ve played this song,” John Paul White launched into ‘20 Years‘. With the sparsest arrangement of the whole night haunted by pedal steel, it’s a wonderful rendition of this Civil Wars tale of lost love – is there any other kind? And if this was rapturously received then the Southern Gothic of ‘Barton Hollow‘, now a raucous drag through the swamps, was the kind of of crowd pleaser that one rarely gets to witness. It would seem, then, that the ghosts of The Civil Wars have indeed been laid to rest and John Paul White has decided to reclaim some of his best known songs – and there was no-one in the room who would have criticised that decision.
The encore was a beautifully solo acoustic and unmiked ‘Once and Future Queen‘ sung from the stage edge before a final return of the band for what has become John Paul White’s traditional closer, a cover of ELO’s ‘Can’t get it out of my head‘ which sits quite perfectly alongside White’s own compositions. Seventy minutes is quite a short set for a headliner, but this was packed full of song and emotion making it nothing less than a triumphant return to London for John Paul White – and was a strong indicator of what to expect for the future.
Earlier in the evening, a solo Ciaran Lavery had shown himself to be a slightly intense singer-songwriter whose acoustic guitar accompanied songs never stray too far from a theme of mental anguish. His self-deprecating helped to keep the mood reasonably light between songs which asked question such as, “were we drawn together by love of the Summer rain?” At times there was a Josh Ritter feeling to the songwriting, although Lavery had recently “realized that there’s more than my own ego” to sing about. His take on Brexit and politics was more obscure than his introduction might have hinted at but as he laughingly told us, “I’m not Billy Bragg“. True, but he has an ear for a good cover, The National’s ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio‘ was a highlight of his set.