Tony Joe White at Whelan’s, Saturday 28th June 2014
It’s generally a good sign when Whelan’s is already packed at early doors. Tonight it’s Tony Joe White in the main room, and there’s a warm buzz of anticipation from the assembled blues hounds in advance of his set.
It’s probably a safe assumption that a few people in this corner of the universe discovered the Louisiana songwriter via Rory Gallagher, who covered White’s As The Crow Flies, but White has been releasing records since the late ‘60s and most recently last year’s ‘Hoodoo’ – as he himself has stated, “Maybe I’ll stop playing shows and making records when the songs quit coming to me. But they still come to me.”
White appears all in black, from the boots on his feet to the Stetson on his head, Fender Strat already strapped on and ready to go. It’s well worn, faded from years of swampy blues licks, not unlike Gallagher’s distinctive guitar. Rory, it has to be said, was a bit less ostentatious with his choice of strap; White’s is snakeskin, with the beast’s head jutting out from the front, fangs bared. He kicks off with Way Down South, seated in front of a drumkit, and the lower White’s voice drops over the song’s refrain the more the crowd cheers.
“We’re gonna try to steam it up just a little bit” White tells us as he’s joined by drummer Bryan “Cadillac” Owings, tearing things up on Undercover Agent For The Blues with some abrasive wah guitar midway through the song. It’s a sonic effect he returns to time and time again during his set, interspersing the blues, fast or slow, with these swathes of heavy distortion, a particularly unorthodox effect on The Gift from his most recent record.
White and Owings exchange frequent smiles throughout, with White casting a glance over his shoulder every so often. He hangs back at the final number to let Owings lay out a beat, joining him then with sparing licks on guitar and harmonica, relaxing into the chair to flick out an occasional chord over Owings’ drums, letting the feedback and distortion ring out.
The encore is as unfussy as the rest of the set, with White untangling his guitar chord before sending everyone home on the final, rocking blues of Sweet Tooth and Steamy Windows. White is certainly not afraid to play around within those conventional blues settings, and tonight’s is a surprisingly noisy affair. Just like the reptilian strap he wears around him, there’s a bite to these old standards.