John Paul White Brings the South to New England

John Paul White performing at the Somerville Theatre.
Written by Landry Harlan

By Landry Harlan
BU News Service

“If you ever want to feel better about your own lives, come to my show,” said John Paul White, after sharing a story about his strained relationship with his late grandfather. It was tongue-in-cheek, though, coming from an artist who’s mastered his style. Let’s just call it Southern Gothic.

White’s music may seem mostly dreary and love-torn, but it never gets bogged down in it. For every “If you go, I won’t wait forever,” lyric (“Hope I Die”), at least “there’s always a second time around” (“Black Leaf”). The theme even echoes in the band’s attire. Everyone’s dapper in black pants and a black jacket as if they’re at a wake, yet a lighter tone — White wears a white shirt underneath — peeks through.

The Somerville Theatre hosted the evening as White stopped by to promote his new record “Beulah,” his first solo album in 10 years. Acute listeners will recognize White’s raw, exposed voice from The Civil Wars, where he partnered with Joy Williams to craft two Grammy Award-winning albums. The pair split in 2014 for personal reasons, and White returned home to Florence, Ala., to focus on his family. He eventually helped form Single Lock Records and started recording in a studio in his backyard to form “Beulah,” a term of endearment in the White family. It’s a cathartic collection of songs, dynamic and delicate and full of heartrending honesty.

“Love is something you can only take,” he croons in his deep baritone on “The Once and Future Queen.”

“I try to write vaguely and a little bit fuzzy so you can imagine yourself as a character in the song,” he says of the sometimes-cryptic lyrics.

The concert hall was intimate and cool, a far cry from the muggy Alabama humidity where the album was written. It seemed to warm up every time White’s vulnerable vocals rolled like a river or rose like a tide, especially in the “The Martyr,” the biggest hit from the album. There was even a surprising cover of The Beach Boys’ buoyant “In My Room” to make the crowd of New Englanders pine for balmy weather and clearer skies even more. Still, the audience was hoopin’ and hollerin’ as soon as he ambled onstage, and with White’s blessing, “You can do that after every song.” And oh, they did. White earned it.

If you missed last night’s show, White will be performing at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton tonight. Tix are still available HERE.

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