How to tell whether Jack White has brought his male or his female band along to a show? As the suited roadcrew prepare the stage at the Forum, one suspects the answer might be in the drumkit, sheathed until the very last moment; something about the positioning of Daru Jones’ bass drum, perhaps?
When the sheet comes off, at 9.45, the kit is configured more or less normally – though sat at stage front, to one side, in the kind of space once occupied by Meg White. This is where Carla Azar will ply her trade, at one end of a stage-wide curve of female musicians who are required to do tonight’s shift as White’s backing band. White might stalk over to her kit from time to time and eyeball her in the way he used to approach his sister, but from the moment Azar starts playing “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”, her style is radically different – more intricate, perhaps inevitably – than her predecessor.
“Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” is a good test case for the new, expanded White vision: can his old White Stripes songs withstand being worked over by a big band, with fiddle, pedal steel and cascading keyboards to the fore? The answer, reassuringly, is yes. The accumulated gravity doesn’t make this and “Seven Nation Army” (now with bassline played on an actual bass) sound any less like Led Zeppelin. But it does illustrate how robust and flexible White’s songs are. Liberated from the minimalist novelty of The White Stripes, their power is undimmed; their odd, quivering potential to excite remains just as strong.
Some, you could argue, even come out stronger: “Hotel Yorba”, flourishing as a full hoedown; a grandly hysterical “I’m Slowly Turning Into You”, with White’s vocals dissolving in every line into those of Ruby Amanfu; “My Doorbell”, with Brooke Waggoner taking the piano line and White fleshing out the original wonky strut of the song with his guitar. Only “We Are Going To Be Friends” comes out worse, to these ears. Early on in the life of these new bands, White is evidently fascinated by the rich possibilities of how his songs can be filled out. Sometimes, as with “Friends”, a little more space would be a useful weapon, a respite from the ominous drone of the violin and steel which packs every available space in nearly all of these songs.
Of the new material, “Hypocritical Kiss” and “Weep Themselves To Sleep” remain outstanding, allowing Waggoner to come to the fore with her dramatic piano lines, and pushing the fiddle of Lilie May Rische a little more into the background (Rische, incidentally, emerges as White’s main foil as the evening progresses, stepping into his floor space for some slightly awkward face-offs). “Weep Themselves To Sleep” features, too, a small and wonderfully splenetic guitar solo from the unusually restrained White.
If there’s a main criticism of the show, in fact, it may be that White doesn’t let rip often enough, as if the experiment of working through these songs with a full band is rather inhibiting his explosive guitar playing. Besides “Weep…”, a glimpse of his power can be found in the sliding, geometrical frenzy of “Freedom At 21”. But it’s not until “Ball And Biscuit”, closing the main set, that he unleashes the sort of astonishing, wild extemporisations that made his name.
Tonight, perhaps, is a showpiece of his other talents: his arranging skills, brilliant knack for a gimmick; his general charisma and, above all, his terrific songwriting. It’s telling that two of the best songs are taken from one of his least well-received albums, the Raconteurs’ “Consolers Of The Lonely”. “Top Yourself” and, especially, the Dylanish parable “Carolina Drama” aren’t just great songs, they’re the old songs that are least altered from their original incarnations. If the sparky piano pop of “Blunderbuss” has affinities with “Get Behind Me Satan”, its ornate bombast has its most obvious roots in that curious, underrated second Raconteurs album.
Let me know what you thought if you were at the show, anyhow – and, come to that, what you think of “Blunderbuss” now it’s finally been released. I’m also very keen to hear your reports of the male band, if you’ve caught White with them.
A reminder, too, that my interview with Jack White is in the issue of Uncut on sale for the next couple of days. And here are some links to other things I’ve written about him in the past:
1. ‘Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground’
2. ‘Freedom At 21’
3. ‘Missing Pieces’
4. ‘Love Interruption’
5. ‘Top Yourself’
6. ‘Hotel Yorba’
7. ‘Hypocritical Kiss’
8. ‘Weep Themselves To Sleep’
9. ‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’
10. ‘Two Against One’
11. ‘We’re Going To Be Friends’
12. ‘On And On And On’
13. ‘Blue Blood Blues’
14. ‘Ball And Biscuit’
15. ‘Sixteen Saltines’
16. ‘Take Me With You When You Go’
17. ‘My Doorbell’
18. ‘Carolina Drama’
19. ‘Seven Nation Army’
20. ‘Goodnight, Irene’
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