According to the Great Man theory of music criticism, artists occasionally emerge who are simply unlike everyone else. They don't always make sense, even at the height of their triumphs, and, despite setting the world aflame, they've no real contemporaries and leave no path to follow. Blessed with a storm-front live presence, tireless ambition, dizzying eccentricities, and an all encompassing archival knowledge, the peerless few—Dylan, Beck, Prince—wrap hold of classic idioms with thrilling distinction for landscape-scouring tunes instantly familiar and thoroughly new. Jack White's muse, beyond anything else, sounds American.
It's been a little over a decade since the White Stripes first played Berbati's, and, through the first few numbers, he had the same peculiar effect upon the audience as that spring of '01. (it may well have been many of the same crowding the Theater Of The Clouds stage; $75 floor tickets draw an older crowd) Confronted with a bravura arena funk hurricane hurtling forth, the assemblage—evenly split between survivors of the great garage rush of the early oughts, free toking celebrants that perhaps knew White from Bonnaroo, and those monied men of indeterminate age that may well live beneath the Rose Garden—stood paralyzed in rapt formation, more akin to the terra cotta army of musos dispassionately dissecting a Buckethead solo than the party half-heartedly riff seekers arrhythmically shifting balance and thrusting fists during, say, White's 2011 jaunt through town.
White has had so very many projects—Dead Weather with Alison Mosshart last summer, Raconteurs with Brendan Benson before that—that his peripatetic attentions have become something of an easy gag, and it's never exactly easy to tell when he's serious. (Covering Mozart with ICP? Dating Renee Zellweger?) He's simultaneously assumed deeply admired reputations as bonkers artiste, globe-trotting musical dilettante, and two fisted poet-upholsterer who married his bartender and started a band. As the years go by, the White Stripes legacy unfairly fades to memories of color schemes and then-innovative guitar'n'drums format and a showy intelligence never judged pretentious. Those singles hold up as well as anything from the period, though … and they rather disprove any suggestion that new album Blunderbuss represents his first solo effort.
Even lending the kindest possible consideration to what must surely have been Meg White's level best behind the sticks, the White Stripes oeuvre was not a product of collaboration. Blunderbuss, for that matter, assembles an murderer's row of connoisseur's sidemen to flesh out the blistering selection of blues cuts filtered through nods to the '70s and heaping helpings of an inimitable elan. Also, aside from early evening stripped down gig at NW laundromat, White's hardly embarking on a solo tour either. To serve as either enlivening randomness or trenchant gender commentary or ineffable piss-take, he's brought along two backing ensembles—the all-male Buzzards and all-female Peacocks—and arbitrarily picks one shortly before each concert's stat. This evening, the boys played support, choreographing an immaculate maelstrom of widescreen rawk with nerve and dash and damnable proficiency, but, as was even the case midst White's purported supergroups, we know who's the star.
Decidedly uncostumed in jeans and pullover, ebony locks cascading with every jerk of the head, White materialized as a a track from Blunderbuss rang through speakers and promptly led his Y-combo (stand up bass, steel guitar, drums, organ, utility string player) through a string of numbers from the April release. Only with "You Know That I Know", his contribution to last year's Hank Williams covers showcase, did the crowd start to stir—jam festival veterans indulging the rapturous shimmy, enlightened bros miming forearm shivers to the heavens—and momentum continued to build throughout the ninety minute set. If anointing this White's first unaided venture seems disingenuous, there was nevertheless a conspicuous license for every last creative instinct to be indulged. His guitar work, in particular, betrayed a new freedom, and, with rigorously sparse backdrop and lighting spectacle that began and ended with soft blue gels, that took center stage.
Never lacking for confidence with a load bearing riff, White also unfurled a succession of technically daunting flourishes effervescent and almost playful while certain moments, burrowing inside the mandolin tone or briefly aping a horn section midst dialogue with the keys, defy comprehension. Only then, just in case we'd forgotten (which my little nook certain had), did the propulsive thud of "Seven Nation Army"—rendered utterly straight, multi-instrumentalist left to hug tambourine, with world beating energy and a swagger to blot out the stars—serve notice White has a few terrace-shaking anthems rattling around the vaults.
There may be a handful of tunes the past decade to rival the '03 alt chart-topper for FM aggro majesty, but we'll guarantee their creators wouldn't be so effortlessly granted benefit of the doubt for carting along an all-star band in reserve. Nor, as the girls finally appeared midst closing rendition of "Portland, Oregon," would any other guitar hero boast that perfect a rousing elegy to our fair burg. The song worked so well as final encore that fans were overhead asking if the former Loretta Lynn-duet always killed the lights this tour. Seems unlikely it'd get a play during the troupe's ensuing Lisbon gig, but would anybody bet against a lyrically apropos fado lurking within the platinum songbook? Jack White's been our most interesting rock star for so very long. Somewhere along the way, he also became our best.