By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Eclectic alt-country songwriter Jim White brings his current tour promoting his latest oddly titled effort Waffles, Triangles & Jesus to the Chapel in San Francisco Friday night.
For more than two decade, White has twisted and pushed the boundaries of Americana with his left-field lyricism, gothic gospel-country influences and penchant for spacey, downtempo electronic beats. Born Michael Pratt and growing up in a deeply religious Pentacostal community in Florida, he developed a fascination with white gospel sounds as a youngster, but White wouldn’t pursue a career in music until after working such unusual jobs as a professional surfer, a model in Milan, a comedian and a NYC cab driver.
Primitive demos of his early songs got White signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint, which released his inspired debut effort Wrong-Eyed Jesus in 1997 when the singer was almost 40 years old. With its hodgepodge mix of high lonesome Appalachian country-folk, gospel gravitas, dusty beats and a junkyard sensibility that at times recalled Beck and Tom Waits, the album earned high praise from critics and established the songwriter as an artist to watch.
He would continue his experimental genre-busting with subsequent Luaka Bop releases No Such Place (which featured production help from Sade/Sweetback band member Andrew Hale and DJ Q Burns Abstract Message) in 2001 and the lo-fi melancholy of Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See three years later. While lighter and warmer than his earlier work, White’s fourth effort for the label — 2007’s Transnormal Skiperoo — stepped back from modern studio alchemy for a more earthy approach that sometimes recalled the swampy sonic hoodoo of Dr. John’s classic album Gris Gris.
White has continued to traverse some unique sonic avenues in past ten years, delivering everything from somber heartbreak of 2012’s Where It Hits You (as vivid an ode to a disintegrating marriage as has been recorded in the modern era) to his pair of raucous collaborations with the Packway Handle Band (the accomplished bluegrass act that backed White on his last visit to the Bay Area when he played Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2015).
On his latest album, White sticks with a more traditional country/bluegrass setting, but the songs on Waffles, Triangles & Jesus are still shot through with his trademark gifts for wistful melodies and thought provoking turns of phrase. For this headlining show at the Chapel in the Mission District Friday night, White will be joined by San Francisco’s own music writer turned tunesmith Sylvie Simmons. The London-born Simmons made a name as a journalist during the late ’70s after moving to Los Angeles and working as the U.S. correspondent for British music magazine Sounds.
She would later contribute coverage to such publications as Kerrang and Cream, establishing a long and fruitful career as a music freelancer that would lead to Simmons writing a number of notable music biographies including books on country legend Johnny Cash (drawn from one of his last in-depth interviews), French maverick Serge Gainsborough and influential songwriters Neil Young and Leonard Cohen.
It was during a book tour promoting the acclaimed bio I’m Your Man: The Story of Leonard Cohen that Simmons began performing songs written by Cohen on ukulele in front of audiences. She would end up recording a full album of sweet, ethereal original songs with producer/collaborator Howie Gelb of Giant Sand simply entitled Sylvie that was issued by Light in the Attic Records in 2014.
Jim White with Sylvie Simmons
Friday, March 16, 8 p.m. $18-$20