The Music Legends of Xylouris White Attracted Some Big-Name Fans Last Night

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Jim White is a music legend. Even if you don't know his name, you probably still know his work. As the drummer in Dirty Three, White came to prominence in the '90s alternative-rock world. He became known as a gifted and intuitive percussionist and regularly worked with the likes of Cat Power, PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. Warren Ellis, White's cohort in Dirty Three, has become a regular collaborator with Nick Cave. White is enough of a respected musician that most of the members of Wilco attended his show last night at the Oriental Theater ahead of their own appearance at Red Rocks tonight.

White was playing with Giorgos Xylouris — a hero in the more rarefied circles of Cretan folk music. He comes from a long line of musicians, including his father, Psarantonis, who is a renowned singer and lyra player, and his late uncle Nikos, aka “the archangel of Crete,” who became a symbol of the movement that, with the Athens Polytechnic uprising in 1973, began the ouster of the Greek military junta that was established in 1967. It's quite a pedigree to live up to, but Giorgos has clearly made a name for himself.

That these two guys came together is remarkable in its own right, but this show had a particularly unusual origin story. It was originally going to take place at Axios Estiatorio on Tennyson Street, but the restaurant's owner, Telly Topakas, discussed the show with Oriental Theater head Scott LaBarbera, who proposed that the event be held at the Oriental, with its superior sound system and larger space.

The performance — a hybrid of traditional Cretan folk style and more modern folk style, given Jim White's presence and the fact that Giorgos Xylouris was born in 1965, not 1945 — was remarkably dynamic and lively. The lute is one of the most ancient stringed instruments; its origins are in the Near East, a region whose musical concepts — including a non-Western sense of rhythm — surely proliferated throughout the Mediterranean. The music can stretch out and be repetitive without getting dull, instead conveying a sense of urgency and emotional intensity in a way that we don't often experience.

In Denver last night, Xylouris and White looked to each other to anticipate and suggest the direction in which the music would flow. They conferred with each other verbally now and then, but the visual and musical cues were mostly sufficient, which gave the show a spontaneous energy. This music was designed to speak straight to people's hearts and effect some kind of change or strong emotional response.

What was remarkable was how some people knew the words to some of the songs — seemingly all in Greek. And for us non-Greek speakers, Xylouris's vocal inflections, along with his masterful lute playing, conveyed the essence of the emotional content of each song. White, playing perfectly off of Xylouris, solidified the experience with sensitive accents and the appropriate rhythmic drive.

Sometime past the middle of the set, a guy in the audience got on stage and fanned out a stack of money, making it rain ones onto White and Xylouris. This amused White, but Xylouris seemed to be in a trance and ignored it until after the song ended. Then, he, too, displayed a bit of amusement. This may not happen at every show, but the sheer energy, dynamism, technique and power of this performance inspired that kind of enthusiasm. It seamlessly brought the ancient world and the modern world of music together. Xylouris White, with only a drum kit, lute and human voice, rendered modern folk music with ancient ideas in a way that didn't seem retro.

Critic’s Notebook

Bias: I've been a fan of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern music for several years.

Random Detail: Ran into Charles Ballas of Multicast, Howling Hex and Formant at the show.

By the Way: There was an after-show event at Axios that included even more live music with a Mediterranean flavor.


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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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