May 25, 2012

On the scene: Jack White live at Roseland

Contribution from Liz Maher:

Roseland Ballroom - May 21, 2012 - Jack White is touring in support of his acclaimed debut solo album Blunderbuss. Tonight he has the all male band, Los Buzzardos, backing him up; the all female Peacocks will be up the following night. Roadies and guitar techs scurry around in uniform black suits with blue ties and suspenders making sure an army of stringed instruments are tuned in various keys and ready to go. A suspicious red haired photographer in a pale blue cotton dress snaps pictures throughout the show.

After years of sharing the spotlight with Meg White in The White Stripes, Allison Mosshart in The Dead Weather, and trying to blend in with lesser axe men, in the Raconteurs, Jack White is a solo act. Well, not exactly, this solo act comes with 2 bands for a total on-stage support team of around 14. Queasy thoughts of musical theatre come to mind. Having grown up the youngest of 10, White must feel right at home on a crowded stage. White is still keeping people confused and distracted, wondering which song is about x-Meg, xx-Karen Elson or y-Allison. Karen’s ever present backing vocals on tracks about women who abused White makes things even weirder in an MTV personalities trump music way. Blunderbuss is a bit of soap opera – the tracks Hypocritical Kiss and Love Interruption are angst-ridden telenovella episodes --but it’s a soap that mostly rocks in drop E tuning which surpasses the drama. It is clear White can play solo – as long as he is not alone. (Continued after the jump.)

During the making of Blunderbuss, White engaged in a bit of musical husbandry by mixing and then segregating the musicians based on sex. He eventually decided on alternating all female and all male backing bands, which flip flop unless performing hi-profile concerts like the AMEX and SXSW shows. The Peacocks’ standouts are Carla Azar of Autolux on drums and Ruby Amanfu on vocals. Peacocks wear wispy white or blue toned dresses similar to that worn by Karen Elson in the Blue Orchid video, further blurring some A-lines. White always came across as aspirationally femme friendly but the boys against girls marketing gimmick is a little uncomfortable, cult-like and too similar to a fantastically scored episode of HBO’s Big Love. Where would Boy George or Amanda Lepore fit into that lineup? He probably meant to create atmosphere. He does that less disturbingly with the musical instruments, like a Fender Rhodes electric piano among other mostly vintage pieces that look and  sound like they belong in a blue smoke filled Bar& Grill in South Detroit circa 1964.

Bathed in heavenly blue light, White follows his band on stage to riotous applause. He is dressed in something pulled out of the White Stripes’ costume stock. Dead Leaves and Dirty Ground opens with as much emotive energy pouring out of White’s tricked out, blue-toned Gretsch Duo Jet as when he played the same song with his red plastic JB Hutto back with Meg. This time the drumming is more precise and syncopated yet still minimal. A speeded-up version of Missing Pieces amazes the already dazzled crowd.

White spends most of the next hour and a half jumping between guitars and stride piano, which he appears to play without touching the pedal. Suggestion: stay to the right side of the house to get maximum White exposure, as he frequently disappears behind the keyboardist to play piano. White spends a lot of time in drummer Daru Jones’ face, making for inspired runs through Sixteen Saltines, Hypocritical Kiss, Ball and Biscuit and Catch-Hell Blues. White’s rendition of Dead Weather song, Cut Like a Buffalo is choppy and unintelligible at times, the only weak spot of White’s performance. Maybe if he played drums with the marshmallow-covered sticks it would have been better. Trash Tongue Talker’s piano riffs are crisper and more explosive live while Top Yourself sounds so much better than it did with the Raconteurs. White cools the set down with a sleek 2 against 1. White’s evil punk tendencies re-emerge in Black Math and Hello Operator causing the Los Buzzardo’s drummer to sweat through his vest as he tries not to get smacked by White’s slashing guitar movements. Ever the mad-genius bricoleur, White brings Nashville to NYC playing a "country song," You Know That I Know, which renders the studio version an afterthought. Maybe his oddish, unnaturally white face hypnotized me into forgetting that country music is the leading cause of incest. Blunderbuss and Weep Themselves to Sleep are soporific lullabies to the late night crowd.
White brings the 3 pickup Gretsch out again for Ball and Biscuit (amazing) and Freedom at 21 (more amazement). When not feeding off the drummer, White interacts with the multi-generational sold-out crowd, his mile-wide grin mesmerizing them into a sing along.

White steers clear of cliché by not finishing out the evening with Take Me With You When You Go but instead blazing his archtop through an encore consisting of the White Stripes’ Catch Hell Blues merging Dead or Fishbone-like into Seven Nation Army. White owns his past but promises a brighter future. Just hope he drops the bellhop dress codes.

Opening for White was The Alabama Shakes, a band lacking in traditional marketable qualities and relying heavily on lead singer, Brittany Howard’s Janis Joplin-like vocals. They’ve done some recordings for White’s record company and work cheap. They are playing a free gig later in June in NYC.

Side note for those wondering: The WWII propaganda-inspired artwork on Blunderbuss and related singles is by Israeli cartoonist, Tomer Hanuka. Blunderbuss’ artwork echoes the military theme of the title track.

The (w/ Buzzardos) playlist list went like this:
Dead Leaves & Dirty Ground
Missing Pieces
Sixteen Saltines
Hypocritical Kiss
Cut Like a Buffalo
Trash Tongue Talker
Top Yourself
2 Against 1
Black Math
Hello Operator
Weep Themselves To Sleep
You Know That I Know
Ball and Biscuit
Freedom at 21
Steady as She Goes
Take Me With You When You Go
 Catch Hell Blues intro to
 Seven Nation Army

Jack White on Amazon
Official website
Third Man Records website


Anonymous said...

Excellent article.

Anonymous said...

The author's squeamishness over White's all-girl, all-boy backing bands is perplexing. On paper White's use of gender to achieve different manifestations of chemistry, energy, and atmosphere in his live performances is highly innovative--a noteworthy experiment at the very least. In practice it has proven even more remarkable. Observing how an artist's live interpretation of his songs evolves as his band's lineup changes is not a new phenomenon. But White's tactic of using an alternating lineup, and especially his systematic exploitation of the potential differences between a male-male dynamic and a male-female dynamic on stage, allows his audience to experience this phenomenon--which usually occurs slowly and subtly over multiple years, albums, and tours-within a single tour, blatantly, one night to the next. And the extent to which the two bands differently influence Jack White's performances is palpable. The author's instinct to be offended by White's conspicuous celebration of traditional gender differences (exemplified by her reference to Boy George and Amanda Lepore) prevents her from fully appreciating, or at least articulating, the extent to which White's current tour is breaking new ground, raising interesting questions, and potentially furthering our understanding of male-female collaborative performance in the context of live popular music.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the review. No innovation in separation of the sexes, just cynical marketing. White doesn't need to do that either as he's so good.

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