Review: The Racounteurs

A brilliant new album, a thrilling set, a deliriously happy audience...and all merely a sideshow for Jack White, a guitarist in a class of his own

The Raconteurs
Hammersmith Apollo, London W6

Stretching credulity is one of Jack White's favourite pastimes. In another incarnation, in the White Stripes, he pretends that his ex-wife is his sister. Sometimes, as in the Stripes' 'Seven Nation Army', he disguises his guitar as a bass, flirting with his stringent no-bass policy a bit like Gordon Brown toys with his own fiscal rules. With sleight of hand, White can make 40 years of recording technology vanish, replacing it with valves, steam power and - for all we know - little elves.

The Raconteurs are meant to be a modest side project, undertaken with buddies Brendan Benson, Patrick Keeler and Little Jack Lawrence, but that tag is beginning to beggar belief. With White Stripes drummer Meg White unable to tour the last White Stripes album because of acute anxiety, White's focus has shifted from the candy cane colours of his duo to the sepia-tinted rock'n'roll of this four-man outfit, rocking out manfully on a stage framed by the silhouettes of trees.

It is, supposedly, a level partnership. There's Benson, a Sixties-flavoured pop songwriter in a white shirt and black waistcoat, the super-tight rhythm section and White, all in black. (They are joined by touring keyboard player and fiddler Mark Watrous.)

Last time around, when the Raconteurs toured their debut album Broken Boy Soldiers two years ago, this fiction just about held up. But tonight's barnstorming performance finds White scribbling all over this artistic compact in indelible marker, his Tasmanian devil approach to the blues defining this band as it did the White Stripes.

There he is, stabbing the top of an amp viciously with his index finger as Benson plays some clean, precise guitar on 'Keep it Clean' (a cover, originally by bluesman Charley Jordan), waiting for his turn to erupt. There he goes again, mouthing orders to Keeler to go straight from 'Level', a song from their first album, into 'Steady, as She Goes', the poppy single that first introduced the Raconteurs in 2006. He might have a new choppy haircut, but he is the same old Jack White.

Sung chiefly by Benson, and bearing his melodic trademarks, 'Steady, as She Goes' worked hard to establish the Raconteurs as a two-man operation when they first began. But tonight, this taut nugget is reworked into a fierce assault, with White bawling along on vocals.

At a recent gig in San Francisco, White apparently took a back seat to Benson, who lived there for many years. In so doing, White demonstrated two things: a gentlemanly concern that San Francisco was his friend's turf and that the back seat wasn't his customary place. There is no doubt now who is in charge here.

You can't really blame Brendan Benson. He is terrific in his own way, a thin, frizzy-haired Peter Frampton lookalike who mans at least two of the night's high points. 'The Switch and the Spur' is a rawhide tale of 'An appaloosa and/ a wanted man sprung from jail', so cowboy perfect it is almost corny.

And Benson is the prime mover behind the sensational 'Many Shades of Black', the centrepiece of the Raconteurs' new album, Consolers of the Lonely, and the first encore of the night. It's a bitter tale of a relationship unravelling that the Raconteurs are justifiably proud of. In a recent interview, White hinted that it might just be the song that nails the Raconteurs' place in the canon of classic songwriting.

Their thrilling one-and-a-half hour set proves that the second coming of the band is every bit as good, if not better, than the first. They play 10 Consolers songs tonight, out of a total of 16. No one in the deliriously happy audience thinks of complaining, even though this album is still notionally unfamiliar. Consolers of the Lonely came out two months ago with no advance publicity. This sneak attack strategy is the latest in a long line of experiments on the part of bands and record labels in the wake of the readjustment (read: panic) going through the music industry. Radiohead had their honesty box, several more bands have given albums away for free or through new-fangled channels.

The Raconteurs chose to dispense with months of pre-publicity and marketing and made the album available to everyone - radio stations, iTunes, the few independent record shops - in all formats at the same time. Their label, XL, insists it is happy with this stealth manoeuvre, confident that awareness of the Raconteurs will build as the band tour throughout the summer, making up for the missed record reviews and pre-release hoopla. You can only hope they are right, because Consolers of the Lonely is easily one of the albums of the year and one of White's best, full stop.

The house is optimistically full tonight, balanced between diehard fans who are in on the feints and winks that come with White, and men who have simply come to see the guitar hero of the age.

It's getting harder to find new superlatives to throw at White's playing. He spasms with exquisite control through the blues struts. 'Blue Veins' sounds even more like Led Zeppelin's 'Dazed and Confused' than usual. 'Top Yourself' finds Benson playing slide guitar while White whips himself into a louche, vituperative tizzy. He has some distortion mikes littered around the stage, so he can manipulate his voice at will.

Less familiar is the nuanced and lovely piano playing White pulls off on 'You Don't Understand Me', one of the night's few moments of calm. Being in a band with White must be one of the best feelings in the world and one of the most frustrating. No one else comes near him.

The Raconteurs save one of White's best for last. 'Carolina Drama' closes Consolers of the Lonely and the only problem tonight is that the roar of the band drowns out too many of the words. There's a boy, his mother, her boyfriend and a priest, locked in a primal struggle, blood and milk everywhere. Like many things about White, it is outlandish and outlandishly good. 'If you want to know the truth,' White virtually sobs at the end, 'go and ask the milkman.' The truth, though, is rarely as much fun as the masterful dissembling.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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