Taken from Nashville Scene (Mar 16, 2018)
Jack White Debuts New Songs, Band at Surprise Third Man Records Gig
White rips through songs from Boarding House Reach and reinvigorates some old tunes for fans in the Blue Room
by The Spin
Photo: David Swanson; courtesy of Third Man Records
How does an artist stay relevant when being a chart-topping rock star with his or her very own mythology has become standard operating procedure? The Spin wouldn’t know from personal experience, obviously. But judging by Jack White’s roughly decade-long tenure in Nashville, the answer is to never do something the same way more than once. Maybe that means — despite being a militantly pro-analog artist for decades — using contemporary methods like Pro Tools for the first time ever, as White recently told Rolling Stone (also cited here) he did during the editing process of Boarding House Reach. Maybe it means forming a four-piece backing band that features two dudes with synthesizers. Maybe it means playing a chiming, plinking, synth-backed version of the 2001 White Stripes fan favorite “We’re Going to Be Friends.”
On Thursday night, we caught a glimpse of what White will be up to on his forthcoming tour when he debuted his new band and songs from his forthcoming third solo album at his “house,” Third Man Records. It was the first show of a two-night run, though we’d later discover White has added a third show on Saturday for Spotify fans (because, of course, he likes things in threes). Things seemed to run smoothly, despite some bummer news earlier in the week: Seven TMR employees were laid off. We rolled in shortly after 8 p.m. to find a line for the merch table stretching through Third Man’s courtyard and the whole place teeming with superfans. The only ways to purchase a ticket to the surprise show (which cost $111 apiece because, as mentioned, he likes things in threes) were to be a member of TMR’s Vault fan club or to show up in person. That meant everyone who was there on Thursday really, really wanted to be there — if White was looking for a receptive crowd to debut these songs to, he had it.
Wearing a black-and-blue jacket that he’d soon shed to display a shirt covered with white lightning bolts, White looked like something out of a Tron sequel as he stepped onstage at 9:30. He utilized a trident-like stand sporting three microphones (because, y'know, things in threes), and throughout the night he’d switch from one to another to employ pitch-shifting, reverb or distortion effects on his vocals. His new backing quartet features a couple of familiar faces — those of Autolux’s Carla Azar and local bassman Dominic Davis — as well as new-to-us auxiliary/keyboard guys Neal Evans and Quincy McCrary. White has a penchant for picking drummers who threaten to upstage him — Azar has drummed with White before in his all-female backing band The Peacocks, and White looked to her often throughout the night, cuing her with nods and gestures and quick asides as she bashed and thrashed behind her kit. We’ve been told that White likes to rehearse plenty in preparation for his shows, but not too much. Chaos and spontaneity seem important to his method of performance, after all, and that sense of tension could be felt whenever he’d shout those cues or deliver those gestures.
White & Co. opened with the Stripes classic “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” before diving into a set that mostly featured Boarding House tunes, like the buzzing and frenetic “Over and Over and Over” and album standout “Connected by Love.” For our money, the former White Stripes frontman is at his best when he’s lurching and stomping around the stage, fussing with his guitar’s whammy bar or bending a note into high oblivion — which we saw plenty of on Thursday. Or even when he’s eccentric for eccentricity’s sake, like when he poked fun at Vice, saying something about seeing a special on the media empire’s HBO program about weed-smoking Sherpas at a house show in East Nashville … or something like that. He also went off on a tangent about cats and cat owners and car alarms before playing his new tune “Why Walk a Dog,” and explained that all four of his grandparents were present at the show (even though all four of his grandparents are dead).
At one point in the set, White played "Cut Like a Buffalo," one of our favorite cuts by another of his groups, The Dead Weather. We’d seen his Dead Weather bandmate Alison Mosshart in the crowd earlier in the evening and wondered if she’d join the band onstage for the tune, but no dice. Even so, hearing his new lineup’s take on “Buffalo” made us realize that Boarding House Reach’s songs probably hew closer to Dead Weather material than anything else in his ever-growing catalog. Songs like the jittering, hip-hoppy “Ice Station Zebra” and the disjointed, meandering “Respect Commander” are volatile and full of alien sounds. It’s weird stuff — maybe the weirdest we’ve heard from White in a while — and that makes it compelling to watch unfold live, even if our favorite songs in the set were “Sixteen Saltines” and “Love Interruption” from his 2012 solo debut Blunderbuss.
White closed out the evening with an encore that featured The Raconteurs’ “Steady, as She Goes," another blast from the past that sounded reinvigorated in the hands of a new lineup. It would seem that White's approach to this album cycle is to challenge himself in different ways than he usually does — to try recording and performing tactics he's never quite been comfortable with, and to play tunes from his own catalog as though he's covering and reinterpreting a different artist. In the intimate confines of Third Man's Blue Room for a couple hundred devoted fans, it went over like gangbusters. Soon, we'll see how he does when he takes his show on the road.