Some mischaracterise Jack White as a dad-rock revivalist in deadening thrall to tradition and craft, but this does a disservice to just how electric, wilful and weird an artist he truly is. This is a man who effected a rock revolution armed with limited musical elements, a monochromatic wardrobe and an ex-wife he pretended was his sister, and who tonight risks the ire of millennials by banning smartphones, to have the crowd’s full attention. Doing things straight has never been a part of the plan.
This explains his gonzo new album Boarding House Reach, which adds wild funk, offbeat gospel and, most unexpectedly, hip-hop to his palette and which, against fierce odds, mostly works. One of a handful of intimate gigs White is playing this week in Los Angeles, New York and London to celebrate the album’s release, tonight sees him debut a number of Boarding House Reach tunes, along with highlights from his back catalogue, adapted for his new band.
Pale enough to be wearing corpse paint and with a mop of thick black hair, he’s a Tim Burton-esque vision of a guitar hero: Edward Plectrum-hands. His soloing, of which there is plenty, is less about flash and technique, more about emotion, all sweat, spite and vinegar. He plays some of his earlier numbers completely straight – Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground is archetypal White, and brought alive by the venom and savagery with which he delivers it, stinging like a fresh wound. Inevitable closer and occasional terrace chant Seven Nation Army provokes a wall-shaking mosh stampede.
Other older songs are twisted into unexpected new shapes: keyboardist Neal Evans couches We’re Going to Be Friends in Vince Clarke-esque synth lines, recasting it as a sweet electronic ditty; Wasting My Time is slowed to an infernal crawl, White driving its black-hearted ire to operatic heights, playing the blues as primordial metal stomp. The results are White at his wildest, melting these songs down to their essence, playing his light and dark sides to their extremes.
The new songs are without-a-net tightrope walks. Over and Over and Over’s funk-rock riff conforms to White’s trademark guitar kineticism, and the garage/hip-hop mutation of the anti-Trump broadside Corporation isn’t a million light years from early Stripes belter Hello Operator – which also gets a gleeful airing tonight. But Ice Station Zebra, a cut’n’paste of lounge groove, thrash blitzes and abstract sounds, like Art of Noise duelling Metallica, is held together only by the manic glee with which White delivers it. Even Connected By Love, perhaps the most classic of the Boarding House Reach material, is a very Roxy Music-esque vision of gospel – White’s vocal is shrill, artful, but still sincere, like Bryan Ferry’s. Nothing is quite as it seems, and he seems to relish this unsettling edge.
But even at his most trad – the unabashed classicism of Blunderbuss, say – he revitalises overused tropes, washing them clean of cliche and autopilot emoting. This ability to make the old feel new again was a large part of White’s appeal the last time he played poky London noise-pots like this, in the White Stripes’ legendary first UK shows in the summer of 2001. That his passion remains undimmed, his eccentric vision still so ornery and unpredictable, is a very fine thing indeed.