Don White strode to the center of Hill Auditorium's massive stage, stared out at the crowd, and announced, "I'm going to sing a song that will bring you so far into the life of my family that you, too, will need therapy." It was a savvy intro, tailor made for several thousand residents of a town with a higher-than-average TPC (therapists per capita) ratio, and White — a no-nonsense folksinger from the Boston area with a workingman's sensibility — got himself a nice laugh. He proceeded to make good on his promise, offering up song after song about the joys, annoyances, embarrassments, thrills, and fulfillments of family life.
A self-described "chord hack," White doesn't try to wow anyone with guitar wizardry. Instead, his act is about homespun truth and spot-on timing. He's a confessional songwriter, recounting his own foibles — and those of his (assuredly sainted) wife and kids — with wide-eyed openness. He's the kind of writer who can take a split-second moment in his life (like a look his wife gives him when he's splayed out on the sofa with the dog) and turn it into a five-minute musical epic.
Compact, swarthy, ponytailed, and seemingly fearless, White would definitely be a tough dad for the typical hapless American teenager. (At one point he snarled, "And I told her, 'If you don't start treating me like a human being, I'm going to get a job playing folk music at the mall!'" Other dads might say things like this — but one has the sense that Don White would not hesitate to act on the threat.) And, indeed, dealing with his kids took front and center during White's set.
And, as many in the Folk Festival audience could doubtless attest, teenagers turn into adults — adults who sometimes return home to live, indefinitely. White has obviously spent a good bit of time thinking about this. His song "Come On, Mama, Be Sixteen with Me" details his perfect plan for scraping reluctant young adults from the familial nest. It's a plan that involves Mom and Dad climbing out windows, getting brought home by the police, and being mouthy and promiscuous. But the silliness flips to sweetness at the end as White recalls how lovely his wife was at that age.
White closed his set with one of his most popular songs, "I Know Exactly What Love Is." The song's many verses take us from the birth of a baby girl through her childhood and first love to her marriage and old age, her death and redemption. White has an odd, impassioned way of talk-singing, his right hand keeping time, gently stabbing the air. His powerful voice soars to almost operatic heights, then turns into an almost nasal drone, and then drops to a whisper. After all the comedy, the shift was stunning. Local singers Matt Watroba, Katie Geddes, and Deb Wood provided chillingly beautiful backup on each eloquent chorus, and the crowd went wild.
Don White plays at the Ark on Saturday, April 1. Opening for him is the trio All about Eve (Katie Geddes, Deb Wood, and Debra Gerber), with tight, gospel harmonies and edgy takes on pop songs.
[Review published April 2006]