Those in attendance got to hear the yet-to-be-released "Beulah" in its entirety.
Headlining Colectivo’s Back Room on Monday night, folk rocker John Paul White sported a black jacket, loosely tied tie, his trademark scruffy beard and semi-kempt collar-length locks. Basically, if Johnny Depp was getting cleaned up for a wedding but gave up halfway, you’d have White. It’s his first tour since the 2014 breakup of the The Civil Wars – a four-time Grammy Award-winning partnership with Joy Williams – and White is primed to release his first solo album in nearly a decade on Aug. 19, Beulah.
White’s combination of somber lyricism, a self-conscious on-stage swagger and sublime guitar picking has lifted him to a status reserved for coffee shop gods. In fact, it seems as though White may have been born with calloused fingers, more of a gift to those lucky enough to hear him play than to the musician himself. With nearly 300 people in attendance, the Back Room became “the biggest show of the tour” according to White. He says he’d like to return to Colectivo after the album is released, news that the audience certainly appreciated.
“I cannot believe how many people are here,” he says. “Milwaukee, who knew?” White was clearly touched by the day-after-Summerfest turnout, admitting that he was nervous about how well tickets would sell on a tour promoting an album that wasn’t even out yet. “I smiled more than I ever intended to,” the usually remote White says early on through a suppressed grin. “I have a reputation to uphold.”
The concert revealed a new direction for White. With a full band – bassist, drummer, keyboard/xylophonist – there is a greater range of sounds for White to play with, an adjustment from the limited capabilities The Civil Wars made the best of. Rather than plucking solo on an acoustic guitar, White was free to actually strum in a couple songs, on an electric guitar no less; a combination that seemed unthinkable just three years ago. “Are you okay with loud?” he asked. There was certainly more of a rock ‘n’ roll feel to the performance, but White still proved to be a master of subtlety, opening with a subdued and soulful a capella number before his band joined him on stage.
Those in attendance got to hear the to-be-released Beulah in its entirety. White says that he is purposefully, though hesitantly, employing this approach throughout the tour to see how well an unacquainted audience would appreciate (or disparage) the new music. In response, the audience listened in respectful, attentive silence before boisterous applause and cheers met each song’s conclusion.
The preview makes Beulah seem like it could be a high-quality soundtrack to a road trip movie, juxtaposing sing-along-with-the-windows-down jams and tear-jerking lullabies, along with a sappy love song or two. It’ll be something new, as percussion and electric guitar were sparing on The Civil Wars’ two studio albums, but White’s current fans should devour Beulah when it drops next month.
*This post was updated with additional information.