It wouldn’t be fair to judge Jesco White’s performance at Smith’s Olde Bar Monday night without mentioning it was the infamous Dancing Outlaw’s 56th birthday, and it was officially his party. But though he was a bit bogged down by booze—it was apparent from the start—he by no means failed to entertain.
Before White’s set started, he hopped onstage with local act Gun Party, who’d opened the show, for an enthusiastic “Happy Birthday” serenade. White wobbled toward the mic and from the bar about 30 feet away, his speech was hard to decipher. After what is safe to assume was a thank you, he sang a little ditty a cappella, but it’s unlikely anyone understood it. As he exited, everyone clapped and cheered anyway.
Gun Party continued their merrymaking for another couple of songs. I must admit I didn’t arrive in time to catch the first few, so it’s possible I wasn’t there for long enough of a buildup. But honestly, a good band can pique serious interest within minutes. While I was steadily engaged, it was for the wrong reasons: They sounded like a funk-fusion jam band, and that’s just not my thing. I can’t harp on musicianship, because the merrymakers of Gun Party have that down. It’s style that’s the problem. Gun Party seems to be forcing cool, trying to squeeze into a suit sewn from bits of arena rock acts, jam bands and Gogol Bordello. The female vocalist’s posturing is on par with that of Hayley Williams of Paramore or any other excessively tuff-meets-sexual grandiose stage presence. The half-full crowd did seem to enjoy them, so no matter how extensively I explain why Gun Party doesn’t work for me, there’s that.
White kicked off his set appropriately with the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Fans moved closed to the half-circle stage, the front lined mostly with screaming girls. White danced, tapping and putting his hands on hips and gliding across the stage. It could have been the audible fan fervor muffling the sounds of his taps, but it didn’t seem too in tune with the beat of the song.
When the Ozark Mountain Daredevil’s “If You Want to Get to Heaven” played and was followed by Marty Stuart’s “Hillbilly Rock,” I realized we weren’t going to see White dance alongside a live band. This was it—just recorded music playing while White pranced around a little off cue.
You’d think it would only get worse from there. Wrong. The documentaries that made the Whites famous—“Dancing Outlaw,” “Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood” and “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia”—did so because they showcased the Whites’ tradition of not giving a damn about much beyond having a good, raucous time. They can be vulgar, offensive, dangerous, stubborn, proud and incredibly fun, and Jesco White is their traveling spokesman. Jesco’s inexplicable ability to radiate charm no matter how tanked he gets before (and during) the show is a rare spectacle. He could have used a tape player with a busted speaker as his backing band and not lost a single fan.
White danced along to more country hits, many of them ‘90s chart-toppers—John Michael Montgomery’s “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident” and the like. He sang segments of the songs more frequently the later it got (and the more he drank), but he never sang one in its entirety. He may not have sung a full line from any song, actually.
For the entire set, a small table onstage Alida Darvill, White’s new wife of about a little more than a year, sat ready with a fresh beer for his between-song breaks. She cheered when he revved up the dancing, which was momentary thing that happened at most once per tune, and sang along throughout the show. She gave a beer to front-row fan before later joining White onstage for a love song. I watched briefly then went outside to get some air. The show had ended abruptly while I was out. A friend told me Darvill got into it with someone from the crowd and told them to f**k off or something similar.
Full Gallery after the Jump