Jim White + Sylvie Simmons + Thomas Kozak @ Ambrose West | 04.08.18
In a world with a seemingly infinite number of singer-songwriters, it’s near impossible to stand out. But I guess this is true about the arts in general. Those who leave a mark on the world tend to see the world in a different spectrum. Whether the result of chemical imbalances, disorders, traumas or or just a life that rewarded a unique perspective, their art provides the rest of us with a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive.
Jim White is one of those special songwriters. A 61 year old eccentric with an admitted history of mental issues, White’s time on this planet has been filled with journeys and characters—a wealth of stories to share. And not only does he have stories, but he has a remarkable gift for storytelling. Funny, poignant, dark, yet sincere, his stories are complicated but easy to follow, detailed without being superfluous. He’s very much cut from the same mold as a top tier comedian. Unlike the amateur comedians I recently saw at an open mic performance, his stories never rely on cheap punchlines but are incredibly funny. Beyond the laughter, there’s also an emotional depth that speaks of the beauty, challenges and complexity of life with an appreciation for the whole gamut of what the world has to offer. His songs are an unconventional take on the southern songbook. Within them, there’s a deep love and appreciation for the traditional sounds, but he breaks the mold for more off-kilter results.
Watching White perform at Ambrose West in Asheville on Sunday night, I found myself converting from casual fan to a deep admirer. Spending as much time telling stories as writing songs, the set was the stuff of legend. Both his stories and songs were captivating, and in combination it was truly special. This man’s name and music belongs in pretty exclusive company amongst the songwriting legends of our time.
During the set, Jim was joined on stage at separate points by Mike Savino of Tall Tall Trees and tour mate Sylvie Simmons. Their accompaniment provided an additional warmth to the special set which was highlighted by “That Girl From Brownsville Texas” and the long anecdotal story that set it up.
Joining White on tour, Sylvie Simmons knows a thing or two about telling a story. An incredible, influential music writer, Simmons has worked as Leonard Cohen’s personal biographer and as head writer for MOJO. Just writing about her makes me nervous, knowing anything I write here won’t be within her exceptional standard. Once described as a “female Leonard Cohen,” Sylvie’s own set was a thing of beauty. Armed with a uke and subtle occasional accompaniment from opener Thomas Kozak or Mike Savino, Simmons’ songs were simple and pretty cuts of melancholy. Like the songs of the greats that she spent so much time with, there was something indescribable in her songs beyond the somber soulfulness, love, and craft. Amongst covers of Cohen and Bowie, her own tunes felt at home.
The conversations that take place between Silvie and Jim as they travel the country must be really incredible. They should record them as a podcast series.
I arrived a little late into Thomas Kozak’s set, but the local songwriter made a strong impression within the few songs I saw him play. He really set the right tone for a special night of music.