White Denim at The Forum, 22 May 2012

Having grown up in the NWOBHM era, in my early teens compulsively following the likes of AC/DC and Motörhead around the midlands Odeon and Apollo circuit, I’ve seen literally hundreds of middle-ranking rock gigs in my life, but lately it’s only rarely that I’ll attend a concert at a venue that can accommodate more than a couple of hundred people. Few bands are special enough to lure me back to the mid-tier circuit venues, but White Denim is one of them.

It’s always regrettable, in a way, when a group gets popular. The last time I saw White Denim was at the far more intimate Borderline in 2008, the year they dropped their breakout album, Workout Holiday. They were just superb. The fiendish intricacies of their hooky tunes, which steal from Led Zep, Canned Heat, and Otis Redding with real verve and ingenuity, were played with the same spiky pot-punk energy invested in the recordings. The band, then a trio, since expanded to a quartet, were still box-fresh, and sounded tight but gloriously loose. Most importantly, they were obviously having a blast. They are more honed and their music more systematically integrated now, and although their most recent recordings so far sound about as fresh as the first, their newfound professionalism has its pros and cons.

I’ve also got some residual affection for the Forum. In May ’87, when it was still the Town & Country Club, I experienced my Damascene conversion to contemporary jazz there, courtesy of the Camden Jazz festival and a simply jaw-dropping show by Ornette Coleman and Prime Time that left harmolodics dancing in my head. It was all jazz, dub and electronica for me, for a good few years after that, and the few indie/rock gigs I did catch were all at smaller venues where the impact was visceral and immediate. I’m thinking specifically here of sweatbox gigs by Pavement and fIREHOSE both at the Brighton Zap Club in circa ’91. Those gigs set new standards of expectation. Now I’m once again open to pretty much anything, rock gigs tend to disappoint, and as for stadium and big outdoor gigs…well, forget it.

Reasons seem pretty obvious. At the Borderline, crammed onto a tiny stage and close enough for direct eye contact, White Denim were feeding directly off each other’s nervous energy. The charge they had then was intimate and electric. Some of that charge has evidently dissipated over time, and there’s probably not much that a jobbing, on-the-road rock musician can do to guard against the toxic effects of repetition. But at the Forum the band were isolated on the expansive stage with the drummer aloof on his riser, all facing forwards. White Denim are nowhere near as woodenly inert as the likes of Kings of Leon, but the danger is there.

The worst thing about this gig was the sound. I’ve become used to intimate, often acoustic performances, where only small PAs and stage amps are required to get the job done (either that or electronica played on club or warehouse sound systems, which is another game altogether (although, now I think of it, it was the superb sound system that made London Hippodrome such an ideal venue for Sunn O))) when they headlined the 2006 Frieze shows)). Simply put, the sound for White Denim at the Forum was shit. I’ve heard worse perhaps, but I know from scanning Twitter that it was bad enough to send some committed fans packing.

But enough of my carping and reminiscences: White Denim played a blistering opening sequence of those infectious up-tempo numbers in which they excel, from the dexterous finger-pickin country-prog of “At The Farm” to the rabble-rousing “Bess St.” and “Shake Shake Shake”. They then dropped the pace right down with “Keys”, a bit of a plod for bassist Steve Terembecki as for the audience, stripped as it was of the strings that lift the recording. Thankfully it was the night’s low point. The band followed up with a succession of more expansive numbers, the dual guitars of James Petralli and Austin Jenkins making delicious work of precisely intertwining lines, proving that some good can come from familiarity. There’s still improvisatory freshness at play here.

Of course White Denim save their most hooky and inevitably well-received song, “I Start to Run” for near the end of the set. This one could probably play itself by now, but considering how tired they must be of running through it, the group did good. Then they kinda screwed up by dropping a ballad, because once a crowd has heard the hits their attention wanders and the chatter gets loud enough to drown out even the Forum’s lousy PA; a pity, because Petralli sang “Street Joy” with real feeling.

“Let’s Talk About It” drew everyone back in though, and made for a rousing, loose and free-ranging set closer. Petralli ended the night down at floor level, presumably (I couldn’t see, and you’ll forgive the lack of photos) playing his FX boxes with his hands. For a moment there, I could’ve been back in OTO. And I can guarantee that although I might figuratively dust off the denim again for ATP’s imminent, unmissable bunfest at Alexandra Palace with Slayer, Melvins, Sleep, Wolves in the Throne Room et al. [I did, and here’s the review], I will be back at OTO many, many times before I next set foot in the Forum.

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