It was fitting that Jim White and Paul Fonfara should end their UK tour at the tiny and hidden Whirled Art cinema near Loughborough Junction station. Difficult to find, located under a railway arch, surrounded by graffiti, decaying shop signs, Andy’s gym, MOT service stations. En route you pass a rainbow-clad community centre and a bunch of church group meeting spaces – the Celestial Church of Christ, the Sureway International Christian Ministries, a Jehovah’s Witness centre. There’s a sign on a street corner saying ‘CAFÉ – tyres, punctures, alarms, sun roofs’.
You could be forgiven for thinking you’d woken up in the dreamscape of one of Jim’s songs – choruses of singing from a distant window, the rap song of a passing car boombox, the wailing of a kid strangling a tune out of a plastic recorder, the comforting chugging of a passing train. Oh yeah, this is definitely Jim White territory – especially when punctuated by the haunted Klezmer-hued notes of Paul Fonfara’s bass clarinet.
Under the curve of the brick railway arch, Jim and Paul performed an informal set of mostly unrehearsed songs from Jim’s back catalogue and Paul’s band the Painted Saints. As it was their last day in the UK, Jim auctioned off one of his guitars to top off the benefit part of the gig to raise funds for Blue Canary Films’ next documentary. The gig included a screening of their previous collaboration, Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus, a journey into the deep South for which Jim provided philosophical and musical segues. Jim didn’t stay for the film screening (“There’s only so many times you can watch yourself on screen,” he said) but the audience of maybe 150 people certainly did. This is a dedicated fan base. Some had been to all Jim’s gigs. They know they are on to something here. None would say the words ‘musical genius’ out loud – that might invite too much attention which would spoil the ride – but they know from many years of panning seedy venues and noisy dives that they have finally sequestered some precious specks of musical gold.
In the film, Jim drives past a fly-tipped pile of white goods, cars and furniture. He says ‘This is my kind of junk.’ You could say that about his songs. Like other writers with his precocious wit and talent (notice I didn’t say ‘genius’) he doesn’t read or write musical notes. His tunes are pulled out of the musical ether – littered with diamonds and tin toys, old crooners and loud-hailers. Add to that a lyrical landscape of biblical iconography, wounded hearts, serial killer diaries and you might get the picture. Imagine being in one of those dreams where you are in a dusty attic and everything you find is an unexpected treat with a twist, where all trash is a treasure – a magical junkyard.
In the US, Jim says he could play to an audience of only 20 or so a night. Here in London he has a loyal following and can obviously make some way to a living wage from his tour of the UK. But one of Jim’s 1997 songs, Wordmule, has just featured on the soundtrack of cult US drama, Breaking Bad. So, one suspects it won’t be too long before more curious seekers find their way to Jim’s junkyard of musical delights. But, like the members of the secretive and exclusive Whirled Art cinema club, Jim’s fans probably won’t mind if these hidden gigs in small venues, with surprising guests like Paul Fonfara, remain for at least a little while longer.
Cheers for now, Beth