Jack White is like the blues man's Mike Patton… I say this in the most endearing way possible. Like Patton, his sound has expanded over time, starting with the simple pop-rock progressions of The White Stripes and expanding to include a universe of more complex arrangements exploring blues, funk, folk and southern rock through his countless other bands and solo endeavors. Then, there is the cloak of mystery shrouding the narrative of White himself. For starters, there was the ongoing question at the onset of The White Stripes' breakthrough whether Meg was his sister or his wife (A: his wife). Most recently, there was his world record for the fastest recording of all time for the eponymous track off his upcoming album, Lazeretto. Finally, there is White's insistence not only to release all of his label's records on vinyl through his Nashville studio, but also his inclusion of hidden treasures etched into the album's physique. (Just to name a few of these, for Lazeretto, White has hidden secret tracks under labels on the album, and certain songs will begin with an acoustic or electronic into, depending on where the needle drops). Even his look is incongruous with the rest of his oddball persona - while his backing band are dressed like stand-ins for the Brat Pack, White looks like he just won the lead role auditioning for a reboot of Edward Scissorhands…it's like Johnny Cash for the Twilght generation.
However, while Patton often seems quirky for the sake of being quirky (or plain utterly insane) there is a masterful, meticulous method behind White's madness, giving way for one of the finest live performances I've seen in the past several years.
The band kicked off with "Lazeretto", a funky, hard rocking instrumental. Watching the band perform, it was easy to tell they chose this as the opening song to find their groove. Find there groove…but didn't they rehearse ahead of time? Well, yes - however, in an interview in the latest Rolling Stone, White revealed he prefers to forgo a playlist, instead leading the band into the songs he feels like playing. I was fortunate to be privy to this interview prior to the performance, as it truly enhanced my appreciation for the band's ability to improvise. Many times throughout the show, White would race up and face band members while jamming their way into a new tune. Had I not read the article, I would have thought he was paying them tribute, giving them an air-high-five like an 80's hair band. Looking closer, you could see he was showing them the chords he was playing, letting them know the next song on his mind.
At one point, the drummer set the tone for the band to launch into the Raconteurs "Steady As She Goes." About three-quarters into the song, White segued into another song, as if he was tired of playing his band's big hit. I must admit, I felt a bit unfulfilled. However, four or five songs later, the band slowly eased back into a reggae-esque melody of "Steady," reminding White he had unfinished business. Then, as if he was finally ready for it, White finished the song, shredding through its closing like his life depended on it.
White was comfortable letting his band take the lead on several songs - even allowing them to dictate upcoming songs. His trust in his band members also harkens back to the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview. White said in the piece that he selects members of other bands on his label to tour with him to help them get exposure; he didn't feel they received the gratitude they deserved from the crowd as opening acts, and wanted to find a way to make them front and center. His band members also blended their own flavors into to many classic songs. The ubiquitously recognizable bass line from "Seven Nation Army" was re-imagined as a heavily distorted electric guitar riff, sounding like a thundering industrial earthquake rather than a pop-ish dancehall beat - the refrain was also spiced with a violin, a keyboard, and a schizo-electronica sample.
Credit should also be given to the Saenger for allowing this show to be all that it could be. The acoustics in the Saenger are maybe the best I've heard for an indoor performance, and are complimented by its intimate setting. Every instrument was perfectly calibrated for optimum sound - at no point did one musician overpower another. The performance sounded more like a fully-mastered Dolby Digital soundtrack playing in a movie theater rather than a live band. The stage setup included foggy smoke machines, moody dark-blue hues, descending light fixtures and a static-stricken TV that looked like it was lifted from Epcot Center's Carousel of Progress…all playing into White's swamp-goth-retro multiple personality disordered motif.
Jack White's kickoff tour for Lazeretto at the Saenger was energized, imaginative and unpredictable. Few musicians can pull of the show this band did. As I'm sure they will be touring furiously behind the new album through year's end, I'm crossing my fingers they may find their way onto the Voodoo Fest lineup - I really can't wait to see them again.