It begins looking more or less, as Jack White has argued ad nauseam, like a democracy. White, Brendan Benson and Little Jack Lawrence are clustered around Patrick Keeler’s drum riser, smartly waistcoated, backs to the audience, flexing their metaphorical rock muscles. They’re playing the title track from “Consolers Of The Lonely”, and the way the song switches back and forth between White and Benson, the way their vocals are tracked by harmonies from Lawrence and Mark Watrous, the new keyboards and fiddle player, the power-packed tightness of it all is overwhelming.
As this staggeringly good gig progresses, however, something significant and, perhaps, fairly inevitable seems to happen: The Raconteurs are revealed not just as a genuinely great band, but also, emphatically, Jack’s band. The last time I saw them was their first British gig, I think, just before the release of “Broken Boy Soldiers”. They were excellent, of course, but one of the fascinating things was Jack White’s studied discretion. The grand rock theatrics we’d come to expect from years of White Stripes gigs had been toned right down, the better to emphasise that, here, he was just one of the guys.
Not any more. I don’t mean to take anything away from Brendan Benson, who’s definitely in fine form here: his showcases, “The Switch And The Spur” and “Many Shades Of Black”, are quite marvellous, for a start. But even then, I find myself irresistibly drawn to White: at the centre of it all; subtly directing affairs with the odd cursory nod of the head towards Keeler; taking all the solos.
I could be getting this wrong, but I seem to remember Benson taking the lead vocal on “Steady, As She Goes” originally. Tonight, it becomes White’s song, with a new edge and anger roughing up the mellifluous powerpop. It’s a transformation in keeping with the shift from “Broken Boy Soldiers” to “Consolers Of The Lonely”, of course, as The Raconteurs have so keenly embraced the possibilities of being a grandiose rock band.
Even the racey little punk songs like “Hold Up” and “Salute Your Solution”, so notionally close in spirit to old White Stripes, have a pomp and complexity that could be seen as self-indulgent, but actually comes across as totally bracing. What’s apparent, after the mild controversy around the Raconteurs’ press-spurning release scam, is that the songs on “Consolers Of The Lonely” are among the best that White has been involved in. White’s first lead comes with “You Don’t Understand Me”, a fervid expansion on those wounded, indignant piano ballads he’s been finessing over the years in the company of Meg. This time, though, without the vigorous constrictions of The White Stripes, his penchant for florid melodrama can really flourish.
On “Top Yourself” and the final encore, the mighty Dylanish “Carolina Drama”, his acoustic strumming is so intense as to be intimidatory, tracked by Benson’s attentive slide. His solos are brittle and explosive, tapping into the electric blues tradition as much as he’s ever done before: there’s even a suitably priapic version of “Little Red Rooster” in the encores.
And then there’s “Your Blue Veins”, the last song of the main set, and one which has grown into the Raconteurs’ own “Dazed And Confused”. I’ve seen countless White Stripes shows in the past seven years or so, but I’ve rarely seen White play a more precise and free, high and wild solo as good as this one. His takeover of The Raconteurs, at least in terms of taking the spotlight, is now necessary and complete.
On the way out, I hear two guys talking about the show, and one of them saying, in the least hyperbolic terms imaginable, how no-one has played guitar like that since Hendrix. It’s a big claim, and one which I imagine Jimmy Page might have issues with, for a start. But then I can’t remember, in just over two decades of going to gigs, any guitarist I’ve seen regularly who has taken the rudiments of blues playing (I’m excluding people like Thurston Moore and Kevin Shields here; “The Coral Sea” has finally arrived and is playing incongruously as I write, incidentally. More about that next week) and refreshed it so utterly, made the great tradition seem so exhilarating. Anyone else there?