Make no mistake, anniversaries often feel like a double-edged sword. On one hand, each milestone that we reach reminds us, like it or not, that we've come just a little bit farther away from sweet sixteen, and the world we inhabited at the time. But then that's why we're always glad to revisit an old favorite, whether it's a book, movie or band, and not only because we know what we're getting (roughly speaking). We also want a reminder of why we fell in love with that old favorite in the first place, which tends to work wonders when our here 'n' now feels arid 'n' tepid, draggin' 'n' saggin', uninspired 'n' tired, take your pack.
That's how it goes with one of Berrien County's major underdog legends, White Summer, whose annual gig at the Hidden Pointe event hall, funk park and go-kart track has become a rite of fall, a reassuring sign that our world hasn't wobbled off its axis yet. There's no agenda beyond three guys throwing down and blasting through those songs we've all heard a million times, as if life depends on it, for one night only, as the saying goes: if you blink, you'll end up waiting till next year, simple as that.
Yet this show -- like the others I've seen, and chronicled -- is hardly some paint by numbers exercise, as drummer-vocalist James Watkins made clear on the band's Facebook page last month: "We were not imitating the particular recording of a song that made it famous. We were interpreting the song itself, and playing our own version of it." That philosophy undoubtedly proved helpful in amassing a playlist of 1,000 songs, he further elaborates, that prompted games of "stump the band," with the audience trying to call out a song it couldn't play. Those occasions, I reckon, were few and far between.
What that means, as the first set progresses, is plenty of room for individual flourishes, whether it's the emphatic drum roll accents that spice up "Comfortably Numb" -- one of two Pink Floyd songs that we get tonight, plus "Time" -- or the ripples of string bends and squeals that guitarist Jimmy "The King" Schrader effortlessly peels off during "Hey Joe" and "Red House," in which he stays true to the basic blueprints of those songs, yet finding plenty of space to make room for his own voice. Hearing him play, it's amazing to think that he didn't reach the same heights as much, much bigger names of the era in which he came up (like Jeff Beck, or Eric Clapton, for instance, two other comparisons that spring to mind, depending on the solo).
Yet the variations don't stop there, as we realize when the band uncorks ZZ Top's "Gimme All Your Lovin'." taken at a less empathic, yet equally funky tempo as the original -- and one that cause a mass exodus to the dance floor, with plenty of arms thrown up in the air, like you don't just care, as that well-worn phrase would have it. When Lisa was asking, "What is it," my ears needed a couple bars or two for confirmation -- but that's what you get, once a band puts its own stamp on the proceedings.
A paint by numbers outfit couldn't ever do that, let alone switch on a dime from the stripped-down, lean 'n' mean funkiness of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Green River" ("I can hear the bullfrog callin' me") -- howled with suitable gusto by Watkins -- to the blues-rock whomp of "Jesus Just Left Chicago," the other ZZ Top number we get during this first set, or even the '70s Southern rock thump of "Gimme Three Steps," by Lynyrd Skynyrd (one of several agreeable vocal turns from bassist Paul Stuckey, standing in once more for his original counterpart, Randy Brown).
Yet White Summer does all these things, and more, within the confines of a traditional bar band/club band format, while managing to find plenty of suitable breathing room outside of it. That approach also guided the band's five albums, all self-produced and released -- starting in 1976, with their self-titled debut, right on the cusp of the punk and New Waver era that made common currency out of such gestures. Like many bands, then and now, White Summer seemingly always stood one gig, one song, one shot at breaking out beyond Michigan -- and later, Florida, where the band moved, after the former state raised its drinking age in 1978, causing the club scene to contract -- yet, for whatever reason, couldn't catch a break.
All the same, White Summer stuck to its guns, trends be damned, as Watkins explained: "Bands were told to wear matching uniforms, do steps (choreography), to never mingle with the audience, to have no time between songs, to do the same sets every night, to copy songs note for note, even to wear wigs. We said no." Big time or small time, that kind of attitude that wears well over the long run, and explains why the crowd still comes out. Time will tell how long the band keeps the flag flying, and the flame burning, but on the evidence of this night, there's plenty of fire left to go around.