The stage was set for Jack White’s September 16 show at Fenway Park. An tiny relic of a television stood in the center, while guitars, fiddles, bass, a drum set, and even a theremin were set. Above, three large I’s (White’s logo) loomed. Only one thing was missing: the band.
Suddenly, an announcer introduced White’s backing band one by one, as they entered by running through the baseball field and onto the stage. Then White himself made an entrance, jogging through the field while sipping a drink. On stage, the band played, appropriately, the pummeling intro for “Just One Drink”. The song, a rocking country track from his most recent album, June’s Lazaretto, begins with a thumping guitar intro, then straddles between a seesawing, fiddle-based chorus and and catchy country hooks. White handled the shifts with the effortless experience of the rock star he is, which means a killer guitar solo was included.
White began his career with the influential blues-rock duo The White Stripes, which he fronted with his sister Meg. While combing early blues classics with 70’s hard rock, the band created an image of mystery and deception; White claimed Meg was his sibling, though she may have been his ex-wife, while pair dressed in red, black, and white. Such foolishness couldn’t deceive listeners from White’s pure, old-fashioned talent. Since breaking up the White Stripes, he’s formed two bands- The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather- and become a respectably roving solo artist. He dug through his catalog, sticking to the hits while tossing in surprises, during his two-plus hour show.
The show began with a high-energy level, alright, but White’s voice sounded a tad tired, and the audio mixing was messy (both got better quickly). That dampened the excitement, but The White Stripes classic “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” had the audience singing along, while White rocked out with some ecstatic, feed-back drenched guitar solos.
One of White’s skills as a live performer is his ability to know exactly what his audience wants, and then deliver it. His setlists feature plenty of tracks from his terrific two solo albums- 2012’s Blunderbuss and 2014’s Lazaretto. But he mixes the new stuff with tracks from his entire career, which is one of the most eclectic and prolific in modern rock. That means his Fenway show was heavy on White Stripes epitomes, highlights from The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, and some surprising covers.
That said, it was slightly shocking just how much solo material White played. A pleasant shock, that is. Lazaretto is a dense, carefully crafted, consistently exciting creation, rich in sounds and surprises. It translates well to a live format, with the exhilarating blues-rock numbers providing buzzing blasts of loud and the folky, quite country ballads offering moments of rest.
He performed 7 of the album’s 11 tracks, including the alt-country “Temporary Ground” and twanging ballads “Alone in My Home” and “Entitlement”. It was the rockers, though, that provided the moments one would be unlikely to forget. The album’s first single ‘High Ball Stepper”, with it’s ear wormy woah-a-woah chorus, skittish piano chords, and screeching, turbulent guitar sounds, stood out for pure, ferocious energy. While a great song, “Lazaretto”, however, didn’t totally deliver, with White sounding slightly weary. As some have said, perhaps these new songs will sound better live in a few years, once White further develops how to play them in front of a crowd. Only time will tell.
No one, however, could’ve foretold that White would’ve reached into one of the deepest cuts from his oeuvre: his version of Hank William’s never-recorded “You Know That I Know”, from a Williams tribute album. Why this surprise? Turns out it was a birthday homage; “Hank would’ve been 91 today”, White told the audience. Keeping with the country theme, he followed that up with the jaunty White Stripes singalong “Hotel Yorba”.
Digging into other corners of his catalog, White played some tracks from his two bands not named The White Stripes: The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs. The former makes toward Gothic, dirty, downright weird blues-rock; the latter makes bouncy, infectious power-pop; both sound mesh elements of The White Stripes with something new. The echoey, organ-centered Dead Weathers track “I Cut like a Buffalo” impressed with it’s shouty chorus and offbeat instrumentation. For The Raconteurs’ “Top Yourself”, White pulled out all the stops. Nearing what felt like 10 minutes, White repeated and repeated the weary country hook of the title, over a more electric version of the song’s more acoustic instrumentation. It’s not a bad song, but others would’ve better warranted such special attention.
If there was a glaring flaw to the show, it was that White didn’t spend much time on each song. But what songs! Early White Stripes tracks like “Canon” and “Astro”, with their screechy rumble, reminded audiences of White’s hard-rock tendencies. On a different note, surprising but welcome covers of Blind Willie McTell’s “John the Revelator” and Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” were tributes to two of his musical idols. And seminal Stripes classics like the childish acoustic love-song “We’re Going To Be Friends” and the bluesy epic “Ball and Biscuit” reminded fans of the brilliance of White’s best band.
Though much of that group’s originality stemmed from being a two-piece, it was fascinating and eye-opening to see White perform his songs with a full band. Fiddler/backup-singer provided a Nashville twang to back up White’s angry holler, while a theremin provided added some new dimensions to the songs. Drummer Daru Jones, however, stood out for sheer skill and swift speed. He doesn’t just provided a backbeat, like most drummers. He treats the drums like White treats the guitar- as an uncontrollable force of nature that benefits from being played as loud and fast as possible.
Following a brief break, White re-entered the stage for an greatest-hits encore. Only the best of his best were performed: definitive White Stripes (“Icky Thump”, “The Hardest Button to Button”, and “Hello Operator”), his latest solo rockers (Lazaretto‘s”That Black Bat Licorice” and “Would You Fight for My Love” and Blunderbuss‘s “Sixteen Saltines” and Freedom at 21″), and “Steady, As She Goes”, a Raconteurs highlight.
Closing out the night, White rocked his closing-song standard “Seven Nation Army”. The 2003 White Stripes classic – which may be his most recognizable – builds an anthemic rock epic around an infectious, unforgettable seven-note guitar riff. With the audience signing that central riff, it electrified in a way that made the album version sound lifeless. The biggest surprise? White’s wailing guitar part was outdone by drummer Daru Jones’ lightning-fast explosion of a solo.
Bursting with boisterous blues-rock, tender country ballads, howling solos, some covers- there was little about White’s show that was disappointing. The rambunctious, rowdy two hours were an ode to the power of rock and roll, testament to guitar solos, controversial headline-grabber, and a great time. Anyone who enjoys a good rock show should do themselves a favor and see Jack White.
One gripe: no “Fell In Love With a Girl”?