Ward White is New York’s preeminent literate tunesmith. His songs come across as a sort of catchy, anthemic, current-day update on Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. They bristle with references to novels, film, theate, art, history…and sometimes silly current events. For all the doomed imagery, savagery and relentless cynicism on his latest album Ward White Is the Matador, those songs can be hilarious. His stage show is the same way. It would have been fun to have been able to catch him playing a relatively rare solo acoustic set – the kind where you can really listen, and get into those lyrics, and try to figure out what the hell all those twisted stories are about – at Pete’s Candy Store a couple of weeks back. But the L wasn’t running. For those who missed that show – or White’s searing electric show with his band at the big room at the Rockwood last month – he’s making another semi-rare acoustic appearance at the small room there at 9 PM on March 31. It’s a good segue, actually, because White’s a criminally good guitarist and he’s followed on the bill at 10 PM by another mean picker, bluegrass maven Michael Daves, who’s playing his weekly Rockwood residency.
That February show there was much like White’s fiery Bowery Electric album release show late last year. Violinist Claudia Chopek fueled the centerpiece of both the show and the album, Bikini – a reference to the radioactive South Pacific bombsite rather than beachwear – with her knifes-edge, shivery crescendos. Bassist Bryan Smith fired off boomy, muscular low-register chords coupled to nimbly catchy hooks further up the fretboard. While it’s not like White – who alternated between punchy glamrock hooks, resonant jangle and soaring leads all night – really needs a lead guitarist, Smith filled that role when the music got quieter. Visually, the star of the show was harmony singer Victoria Liedtke, who balanced a stoic Lynch girl presence with some pricelesss cat-ate-the-canary expressions in response to White’s banter, which were every bit as as funny as the songs’ double entendres and references to things like mylar balloons.
That’s what one of the night’s best songs was centered around, an offhandedly chilling hospital scene set to a allusively balmy ballad backdrop – mylar balloons are those shiny things you can get in any hospital gift shop, White explained. The understatedly creepy, retro 60s pop of Dolores on the Dotted Line was as suspenseful and offhandedly apt a portrait of control-freak sadism as it is on album. The album’s pulsing opening number, Sabbath, was as amusing as it was ineluctably bleak. In between, White cracked up the crowd with the S&M Bacharach bossa nova of Alphabet of Pain as well as plenty of sardonic between-song one-liners, but he didn’t do much explaining when it came to the songs. Although he did allude to references to both an unnamed Kurosawa film and a David Foster Wallace novel in one of the set’s later numbers. Go to the Tuesday night show and find out what else you missed.