in performance: john paul white

John Paul White. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

Near the end of a brisk 70-minute performance Thursday evening at Manchester Music Hall, John Paul White gave a time-out to the expert band that had helped him so thoroughly shed stylistic expectations among audience members as to what kind of show they were encountering. After inviting the crowd to huddle around the front of the stage, he summoned a solo, unamplified reading of “The Once and Future Queen,” a folk reverie whose sad sentiment was perhaps the only thing about the concert that could have been forecasted. Genuinely surprised when a sizeable chunk of the audience, largely the female contingency, sang the chorus back to him (the tune isn’t exactly what you would call a hit), White glided along with an acoustic, elegiac grace as the hushed vocal ambience transformed the tune into something of a séance.

So what made the rest of evening so daring and unexpected? Well, for starters, the Alabama songsmith, who has won multiple Grammys for his work with the folk/Americana duo The Civil Wars, acted as if that band never existed. All of its material was shunned in favor of music cut after the group dissolved in 2014. What that translated into was a set that ran through nine of the ten tunes from White’s new “The Hurting Kind” album (“You Lost Me” was the only exclusion), three works from 2016’s “Beulah” (of which “The Once and Future Queen” was the standout) and a brittle reading of “Simple Song” from the 2016 Dave Cobb curated concept album “Southern Family.”

But it wasn’t the absence of Civil Wars songs that distinguished the evening, but rather the design and intent of the compositions he abandoned them for. The music from “The Hurting Kind” took its cue from country songs as they existed 45 to 50 years ago, an age when composers like Harlan Howard, producer/arrangers like Billy Sherrill and artists like Jim Reeves and Charlie Rich gave the Nashville sound an epic, cinematic, quality.

Playing with audience expectations so severely is a major risk, but White’s payoff proved considerable. He established his card-carrying credentials for such a vintage sound with the show opening “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” and “My Dreams Have All Come True,” which summoned the spirit, as well as an impressive share of the vocal reach, of Roy Orbison.

Then on “Heart Like a Kite” and the title tune to “The Hurting Kind,” he called on the emotive efficiency of violinist Kimi Samson, pedal steel guitarist Todd Beene (last seen in Lexington with Lucero) and former Drive-By Truckers bassist Shona Tucker, all of whom took simple, descending riffs and ignited them with vivid Western color.

As a composer, White locked into his influences in even more unexpected ways. Hence, the disturbingly beautiful “James,” which was modeled after Glen Campbell, but more for its narrative link to the artist’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease in the final stages of his life and career than for the stylistic depth of the country star’s heyday music (although the opening line “Wichita Lineman” served as this song’s coda).

How do you sum all this up? How about with an out-of-nowhere cover of the 1974 Electric Light Orchestra hit “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” that fit into the retro country journey in terms of poignancy, instrumental might and vocal drama quite convincingly. In fact, this encore version sounded as if it has been a Nashville staple from its inception.

With all that working so effectively in White’s favor, it was no wonder his heralded music with The Civil Wars now seems like, dare we say it, history.



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