Jack White review – a classic new shade of White

The Garage, London
The colour-coded guitar hero is on unexpectedly great form, mixing the righteous riffs of White Stripes’ glory days with funk and hip-hop

Are all our Jack White signifiers in place? Then we can begin. The backlit gloom of this small London venue is bruised blue, as per the colour code of White’s solo career (the White Stripes were red and white; you can read into the latterday bruising what you will).

A three-microphone stand draws the eye with its just-so claw marks. These mics allow a range of vocal effects – used to the full tonight – but also underline White’s fondness for the number three: Jack White III, not his real name; his own label, Third Man Records.

In Nashville, where White resides, a similar intimate show last month in a venue called the Blue Room set fans back $111. For this gig, marking the release of White’s third and most confounding solo album, Boarding House Reach, all mobile phones are sequestered in Faraday pouches. White is famously sceptical of certain aspects of modernity: digital recording, digital delivery; he doesn’t own a mobile phone. He does drive a Tesla though, only partly explained by Nikola Tesla being a boyhood hero.

White’s on the money about phones at gigs – it’s energising to see a crowd looking rapt, up at an often peevish performer on quite unexpectedly classic form, rather than down at their Instagrams. At one point in the encore, around the time of Hello Operator, the long legs of a vintage crowdsurfer are silhouetted against the humid fug of White’s latest, superlative band: versatile drummer Carla Azar, veteran of the all-female band that toured White’s Blunderbuss album; bassist and fellow (male) returnee Dominic Davis, a childhood friend of White’s; plus hip-hop newcomers Quincy McCrary (previously of east LA Latin/hip hop outfit Quetzal) on keys and Neal Evans (of Soulive), also keys.

Just before this Garage show, White played a generous surprise set at London’s oldest galleried inn, the George Inn in Southwark (Boarding House Reach, an inn; it adds up), and despite the hugely mixed reviews to his latest output, the guitarist appears to be in an expansively good mood, interspersing the best bits of the new album with substantially reworked treatments of old favourites. We’re Going to Be Friends (an ancient White Stripes song) not only has keyboards on it, but the keyboards sound like they’ve been stolen from Kraftwerk’s vaults. Lit by a bejewelled piano, Hypocritical Kiss also seems to have acquired breakbeats.

The new is as convincing as the old. Fresh from the boarding house, Over and Over and Over is the very first salvo, a monster riff anchoring a typically righteous White lyric about being “punished for the passion” (whether in underdog or overlord mode, White is always righteous). Rumour has it that he has been working on this one song since the White Stripes, and it also formed part of an abandoned 2009 collaboration between White and Jay-Z. It’s swiftly followed by another beast of a riff: the Stripes-era Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, now packed with dense vamping sounds from the contemporary players.

This is all completely unexpected, in that Boarding House Reach is not an album on which White plays out his Dogme punk bluesman persona of old, but a loose, collaborative, contemporary record full of funk jams and weird modernist sounds. Influenced by the ear-meltingly innovative hip-hop albums of recent years, there are twitches, glitches and samples and, crucially, lots of expensive guitars rather than cheap ones. Hypermisophoniac (which White skips tonight) is a typical specimen: a song about the hatred of irritating sounds, made up of irritating sounds, splitting critical opinion like Marmite-dipped fingernails on chalkboard (it’s great). White has always been bloody-minded but has rarely played as fast and loose with the formula.

Accordingly, Boarding House Reach has had the most anguished and hostile response of any previous White-fronted output (some shrugging still surrounds the Dead Weather). There were five stars from NME online, which praised what others bemoaned as the loss of White’s own plot. He is famous for working to his own musical form of orthorexia, in which only stringent “good” methods are allowed, and the easy way is always barred. Pitchfork’s damnation was more typical, balking at White’s cringey rapping on Ice Station Zebra, and an overall lack of tunes or joy. Wrong: this record is all sonic mischief and intermittent glee, and full of tunes. The rapping, when it comes tonight, it not that strange live. Still: best in small doses.

Watch a video of Jack White’s Connected By Love

In short, on the evidence of the new album, you’re expecting White-as-Prince to turn up with the hip-hop equivalent of a mid-70s soul revue, a broken Gameboy and a bigger chip than usual on his broad shoulder. Instead, his hair is down and in his face, as per days of old, and he is playing guitar like the blood is drying on a freshly inked contract with a hoofed stranger backstage. The organ sounds are huge, Azar is whacking out breaks and shaking maracas, but White is coming full circle back to his old self, strangling a series of guitars and channelling Led Zeppelin when you least expect it. Inexplicably, it’s a tiny bit like the early 00s all over again: no cameraphones, small space, flying beer.

Another new track, Connected By Love, is both lush and stark: White’s vocals accompanied just by piano one second, with the full weight of the band descending the next. He writes in character, he has often claimed, but it’s hard not to read this song as a paean to previous intimacies with ex-wives.

Another old track, Seven Nation Army, doesn’t really belong to White any more, having made its way into football terraces and, more recently, politics (“Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”). But oh, the joy it unleashes.

“Who’s with me?” yells White at one point, the rallying cry of new song Corporation. It is, perhaps, the most Jack White thing Jack White has ever shouted, and has the potential to go viral as well, should anyone ever sync this song to a TV sporting fixture. The track has been read as a takedown of a certain businessman elected to office, but live it chunters along lasciviously, the melody passed between guitar and keys. A reinterpretation might be: why do we admire rich businessmen when we could admire musicians, who are so much more worthy of our adulation?


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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