That’s how John Paul White described what the audience would get from his The State Room show Sunday night as he went from mellow acoustic to raucously loud in one song. But actually the whiplash started when the opener took the stage.
Magpie was already onstage when I arrived at the venue. One part Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, one part Lumineers, Magpie is something harder to explain than it is to watch. It was undeniable that they were having a great time onstage—the fiddler barely had a bow string left at the end of the show, the drummer twirled his drumsticks like a high school band majorette and banged on his kit like Animal from The Muppets, and the lead singer and guitarist’s instrument was held together by duct tape. But, their enthusiasm for what they were doing on the stage was infectious. They had the small crowd engaged throughout their set—some in appreciation, some in wonderment and for some, like me, a little of both.
And so, it was a shock to the system when John Paul White, whose gig posters say “John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars,” took the stage solo and belted out an a cappella “I Remember You” dressed in a suit and tie. He played alone, with just an acoustic guitar for a couple songs before being joined onstage by a small band—a keyboardist, a drummer and a bassist.
“Thanks for coming out on a Sunday,” he told the crowd in a charming southern drawl,“Are y’all in trouble?” It was a seemingly clear jab at Utah’s Mormon culture, but maybe not. After all, White hails from the bible belt and there’s plenty of folks there who take the Lord’s day just as seriously as practicing Mormons.
White played mostly new stuff, from a yet-to-be-released album dropping later this month. “It’s going to be a lot to digest,” he told the crowd as he chugged along. And while all of his songs are sad, lyrically, it was hard to tell when the band joined him, resulting in a loudness that was both unexpected and bordered on unpleasant when following the more mellow stuff on the setlist. The highlight of the set was a cover of Dan Seals’ “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” during which only White and his keyboardist, who took a turn on seemingly silent xylophone, were on the stage.
In the end, White brings the strength of a wordy songwriter, much like his fellow Alabaman and musical contemporary Jason Isbell, but he has a little growing to do into his new role as a solo act. The unassuming southern gentleman act is charming, but needs a little something. And maybe it was just because I’m so used to The Civil Wars beautiful harmonies, but I wish he’d brought someone, anyone—even a back-up singer—to provide a little more vocal depth to the show. And maybe he could have a little more fun onstage, even with the serious songs. Magpie could probably help with that.
Photos by Natalie Haws