The Raconteurs (L to R): Jack Lawrence, Jack White, Patrick Keeler and Brendan Benson. Photo: David James Swanson
From the very beginning, The Raconteurs have occupied a rarefied space in Jack White's creative mindset. Unlike his other projects, where he's either the frontman and primary contributor or taking a relatively secondary role, The Raconteurs functions as a fairly equal collaboration, with White dipping his edgy dark chocolate Blues/Rock instincts into singer/songwriter/producer Brendan Benson's sweet and salty AltPop/Rock peanut butter.
And it's no surprise that there were a number of Beatles-esque moments on the band's first two albums, 2006's brilliant introduction, Broken Boy Soldiers, and 2008's exquisitely chaotic and complex Consolers of the Lonely. In a very cogent sense, Benson is The Raconteurs' Paul McCartney and White is their John Lennon.
The recently released third Raconteurs album, Help Us Stranger, is typical of its predecessors' high quality and something of a bar elevation. Upon its June 21 release, Help Us Stranger went straight to the top of the Billboard 200, marking the band's first No. 1 album. And the preponderance of glowing reviews was evidence of a solidly crafted and well-executed contemporary Rock album with skillfully absorbed Classic Rock/Psych/Power Pop influences. "Bored and Razed" and "Don't Bother Me" hit with jackhammer force and surgical precision, while more nuanced moments like the title track, "Only Child" and "Now That You're Gone" still generate the bracing power of a velvet-gloved fist.
Through all of the power shifts and sonic pyrotechnics, the rhythm engine that has driven The Raconteurs from day one consists of bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler. The pair have come to global prominence in recent years due to their association with White as a performer and producer, but some fans in the Greater Cincinnati area remember them vividly for their incendiary run with The Greenhornes in the late '90s and early '00s behind guitarist/vocalist Craig Fox and, for the first three years, guitarist/vocalist Brian Olive and keyboardist Jared McKinney.
Lawrence was introduced by a mutual friend to a local Dearborn County, Indiana group of grade-school buddies that had become a high school band called Us and Them. They began knocking around the Cincinnati scene, becoming The Greenhornes with Lawrence's arrival in 1996. Neither Lawrence nor Keeler could have predicted that their chance meeting over 20 years ago would cause their fortunes to become inextricably intertwined as one of the longest standing and most storied rhythm sections in contemporary music.
And just as The Greenhornes have been dormant since the 2010 release of Four Stars, which itself represented an eight-year gap between full-length albums, The Raconteurs had been relatively inactive in the 11 years since Consolers of the Lonely. Just after the release of his most recent solo album, 2013's You Were Right, Benson characterized The Raconteurs' absence as more split than hiatus, given White's various and numerous musical collaborations, duties as the founder and operator of Third Man Records and demands of his burgeoning solo career.
The Raconteurs (L to R): Jack White, Patrick Keeler, Brendan Benson and Jack Lawrence. Photo: Vance Powell
Against all odds, Third Man's 10th anniversary vinyl pressing of Consolers of the Lonely was also heralded by the release of the first new Raconteurs songs in over a decade - "Sunday Driver" and "Now That You're Gone," which were released as a vinyl 7-inch and as digital downloads. For Lawrence and Keeler, the shock wasn't necessarily that the band was getting back together - it was that the band could still play like a band after a decade of relative inactivity.
"I personally thought it was pleasantly quick, as far as feeling like the band," Keeler says in a recent conference call with Lawrence. "It didn't feel like a struggle, even when we were making the record. We sat down and a few things instantly came that were like old tricks that we would do, which felt really good."
"I think in our minds it was going to be much more difficult than when we actually got in the room to do it," adds Lawrence. "It felt like not that much time had passed."
It was a good thing that muscle memory took over as The Raconteurs coalesced back into a performing unit because Help Us Stranger was about to be shaped by a very different group of musicians than the one that had drifted apart after the Consolers tour. White had created a physical location in Nashville for his Third Man label and released his debut solo album, 2012's Blunderbuss, and its follow-ups, 2014's Lazaretto and 2018's Boarding House Reach, during The Raconteurs' downtime. Benson had founded his own label, Readymade Records, and added three more solo albums to his catalog in that same span. Lawrence and White formed The Dead Weather with Alison Mosshart (The Kills) and Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) and recorded three albums. Lawrence did mountains of session work and Keeler began drumming with a Cincinnati-spawned music institution, The Afghan Whigs, in 2014. Those vastly different journeys changed each individual member, which, by proxy, changed the whole dynamic of The Raconteurs.
"Little" Jack Lawrence. Photo: David James Swanson
"I was just amazed at how well we worked together," says Lawrence, who, for easier communication, has earned the nickname "Little" Jack (or just LJ). "I think from branching out on our own, and then coming back together, we've all been playing with different people and having different experiences in the studio, and we all brought something new. It's like we learned a different language, and then we could teach these guys: 'Oh, that's how you say that.' It was nice that after all these years we could get back in the studio and work so well together, probably better than ever."
One of the most appealing qualities of Help Us Stranger is its immediacy. The album doesn't feel labored or overworked - it bristles with the excitement and anticipation that marked its conception and delivery.
"I would say that a lot of the tracks were cut within the first few days of getting together after eight or nine years," Keeler says. "It was like 'boom, boom, boom.' I'm not saying they were finished but the foundations were there pretty quick. And I think you can hear that, in a good way."
The first Raconteurs album had been recorded in Benson's home studio and their sophomore set had been done in Nashville's Blackbird studio ("Our first posh studio experience," Lawrence says). Help Us Stranger was the band's first recording in White's Third Man studio, also in Nashville. There were other significant differences in the processes that would result in The Raconteurs' third album, and yet a similar feel and outcome emerged.
"I feel like there were more songs that were developed, either from Brendan's or Jack's solo stuff," Keeler says. "We were weeding out stuff. We had a lot of stuff we recorded, probably another album's worth. But other than that, it was just the four of us in a room, like the two albums before."
"They'll write things for their solo records or for somewhere else, and it just doesn't fit right with them and they'll be like, 'This feels like a Raconteurs song. I could take it to the guys,' " Lawrence says. "Then it'll be, 'I don't have words for this chorus, I've just got a melody. Why don't you come up with the words?' Brendan will say to Jack, or the other way around. A couple songs on the record that were just riffs that would start in the studio - like 'Bored and Razed' was a riff that made its way into (a) song. 'Live a Lie' was a riff that Brendan had and Jack wasn't even there for most of that day - he had a meeting - so that just happened in the studio."
Yet another wrinkle in The Raconteurs' sorta reunion (the foursome had played a handful of one-off gigs during the extended break) was going back to relearn songs from the first two albums for their current tour. Songs from Consolers of the Lonely proved particularly thorny to work out.
"It was a bit more experimental, almost Jazz-like, I would say," Keeler says of the Consolers material.
"I see that, but I was thinking more like Prog almost, that Rock/Jazz stuff," Lawrence says. "We were learning songs from the past albums and whenever we had a hard one, it would be from that record. It was like, 'Why did we put that in there? Where is this bridge coming from? Nowhere?' "
"When the four guys who wrote and performed it originally can't figure out how it goes, it's probably too complicated, I would think," Keeler says.
The Ranconteurs in Atlanta. Photo: David James Swanson
Since none of the material on Help Us Stranger was road tested in advance, The Raconteurs' current tour represents the first time any of the new songs have been staged. Perhaps even more problematic was the fact that the tour began before the release of the album, forcing the musicians to play completely unknown songs to a fan base that hadn't seen them live in over a decade.
"We've been doing these phone-free shows, so it did allow us to play stuff off the album without worrying about it being out before it came out," Keeler says, referring to the band's policy whereby concertgoers put their phones in locked pouches upon entering the show, minimizing the chance for live videos to be spread online. "I've worked on albums where you play everything for months before you record it. I guess that's one way to do it. I think that's what happened on Consolers of the Lonely. We worked on a few of those songs between soundchecks and rehearsals, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I like them fresh."
Throughout the discussion of The Raconteurs' history and new album, the common theme was playing music with friends. Lawrence and Keeler often referred to each other in just that manner, and it goes a long way toward explaining why they're still a solid and inventive rhythm section nearly a quarter century after meeting as members of The Greenhornes. And that meeting was about as star-crossed as one could imagine.
Keeler was born in Cincinnati but only because his native Indiana parents drove here for the hospital facilities. Lawrence was born in southern Illinois, a stone's throw from St. Louis, but his father's railroad job led him to Cincinnati and then to more affordable accommodations in nearby Covington.
The pair's musical journeys are distinctly different as well. Lawrence picked up a guitar as a teenager as an alternative to skateboarding ("We got tired of getting hurt and thought we should find a safer hobby," he says) and then taught himself how to play, based largely on his mother's 45 collection. Lawrence found it easier to drop the needle on a single song to learn a passage than to try to find the right spot on an album track.
"The first song I learned was 'Louie, Louie' by The Kingsmen, and then 'Green Onions' was the next one," Lawrence says. "Once I learned those three chords, I was like, 'Man, I can play about anything. That's all this is?' Done."
Jack White (left) and Brendan Benson in Atlanta. Photo: David James Swanson
Keeler's training came much earlier. His parents gifted him with a drum set at age 5 and immediately signed him up for lessons. It may well have been a parental ploy to see how serious he was about his newly acquired kit, but Keeler was clearly born to drum.
"My mom and dad were very good about what one got, the other one got. My brother was getting either a guitar or a saxophone, and I said, 'I want to play drums,' " Keeler says. "I took lessons at Buddy Rogers Music in Cheviot with Brian Baverman. I did that until I was 18. I started working the door at (legendary Cincinnati Jazz club) the Blue Wisp when I was 16, and I would watch (drummer/Blue Wisp Big Band leader) John Von Ohlen."
The critical decision that allowed Lawrence's and Keeler's paths to converge happened when Lawrence switched from guitar to bass.
"Classic story - no one wanted to play bass, so I wound up doing it," Lawrence says.
With that necessary adjustment, introductions were made and Lawrence stopped jamming with friends and joined his first real band. At that point, Craig Fox, Brian Olive and Keeler were all attending different colleges but living together in Clifton. The Greenhornes' first album, 1999's Gun For You, shows the newly minted rhythm section's value as a fluid anchor to whatever stylistic direction the band was pursuing, from raw, untamed Garage Rock to soulful Pop Rock balladry.
The Greenhornes developed quickly in the new millennium. Early in 2001, they released their impressive self-titled sophomore album and established themselves as one of the area's leading musical lights. Later that fall, they opened for The Strokes on their first nationwide tour to promote their debut album, This is It, at the original location of the Southgate House in Newport. The Greenhornes' frantic and adrenalized opening set must have had the New York quintet wondering exactly what they'd gotten themselves into with the booking.
Almost as important as the chemical bond between Lawrence and Keeler was the connections The Greenhornes were making as they made their way out of Cincinnati. Lawrence and Keeler are quick to credit the city's prime location as a hub close to so many bigger markets as one of the reasons for The Greenhornes' rising profile in the Midwest.
One of the cities that The Greenhornes returned to time and again was Detroit, home to a thriving Garage Rock scene. They had made friends with a band called The Hentchmen and they began trading shows with them. On one particular trip to the Motor City, they made the acquaintance of a guy named Jack White who seemed to be a fixture at The Hentchmen's local shows.
The Raconteurs in Niagara Falls. Photo: David James Swanson
"He was friends with The Hentchmen and after a show, he had a party and we ended up crashing at his house," Lawrence says. "We saw him the next two times we were up there, but we didn't even know he was in a band."
Although Lawrence and Keeler have cut way back on the intensity of road festivities ("I remember stuff now," Lawrence says), The Greenhornes' legendary capacity for, shall we say, party-favor consumption has worked its way into Detroit's musical folklore, a decade and a half after their heyday.
"When we showed up, it was going to be on," Keeler says. "There's a longstanding catchphrase in the old Detroit Garage Rock scene: 'Getting Greenhorned.' We've only done that a few times on this round."
"We became a verb," Lawrence says.
Not long after The Greenhornes established a presence in Detroit, White, already a part of several bands, started The White Stripes with wife Meg White (famously billing themselves as brother and sister at the onset) and The Greenhornes began trading shows with them as well.
"They opened for us at (former Corryville Rock club) Sudsy Malone's," Keeler says. "And we toured together a lot with them."
The friendship would pay enormous dividends when The White Stripes' fortunes skyrocketed in the early '00s.
A couple of years after The Greenhornes released their third full-length, 2002's Dual Mono, White was tapped to produce Country icon Loretta Lynn's 42nd studio album, Van Lear Rose, and he contacted Lawrence and Keeler to be the rhythm section for Lynn's studio band, The DoWhaters. The Greenhornes had lost Olive and McKinney and were on the verge of the eight-year gap before the release of Four Stars, so Lawrence and Keeler agreed to do Lynn's album. The near universal praise for Van Lear Rose shone a direct spotlight on White as producer and on Lawrence and Keeler as players, which spurred industry interest in all of them.
"I still think that's the biggest thing I'm ever going to be a part of," Lawrence says.
Jack White (left) and Brendan Benson in Atlanta. Photo: David James Swanson
The engineer on Van Lear Rose was none other than White's old Detroit crony Brendan Benson, sowing the seeds for the launch of The Raconteurs in 2005. The subsequent decade and a half has been a whirlwind of extracurricular band projects, touring opportunities and session work for Lawrence and Keeler, and they have availed themselves of every offer they could squeeze into their increasingly packed schedules.
But through it all, they've never forgotten the lessons learned and experiences forged in the fires of The Greenhornes. It's been nearly a decade since Four Stars was released, but the band never officially announced a break-up or even a formal hiatus, so they remain suspended in the amber of not working but not definitively finished either. Fox has kept his oar in the water locally with well-regarded bands like Cincinnati Suds and Oxford Cotton, and Lawrence and Keeler have maintained contact with him over the years.
"I miss him tons," Lawrence says of Fox. "We were together for a long time - a long time to be in a band in a van and barely breaking even."
"I would always get back with Craig," Keeler says. "I don't think we ever ventured into black territory in the checkbook area. But it was fun - (it) taught me more about playing music than anything. And it was such a cool band because there were zero rules about what you played or what you did."
Lawrence and Keeler moved to Nashville in 2005, and while Keeler has called Los Angeles home for the past six years, his plane ride back to Cincinnati is no longer than Lawrence's drive from Nashville. Obviously, Lawrence has less hoops to jump through to get back to the area - he was just here to record bass parts at Northern Kentucky's Candyland studio for Kim Deal's new solo project - but the way is clear for something to happen with The Greenhornes.
Not all of Keeler's time is taken up with playing drums - he currently works for a clothing company designing Rock T-shirts.
"I've done anyone from The Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead, Metallica, Elton John, Bob Marley, The Beatles," Keeler says. "We do a lot of Rock & Roll licensing."
"I don't know if you've heard of any of these guys," Lawrence says dryly.
Lawrence and Keeler banter and react to one another with the easy camaraderie of two guys who have been friends for nearly a quarter of a century, and not two long-term professionals who have accomplished great things and now have a legacy to maintain. Keeler goes back to a point made about The Raconteurs reassembling after a long layoff.
"I learned how to play Rock & Roll with Jack Lawrence," he says emphatically. "That's why it's easy to do when it comes back around."
"If we could only get rid of those pesky guitar players, we'd be fine," Lawrence responds, tongue firmly in cheek.
"I use four drums, LJ uses four strings," Keeler says. "That's all you need."
Good friends first, a great rhythm section after that. The point is that Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler are prepared to lay down the perfect rhythm for whatever opportunities are presented to them, because it will always be easy to do when it comes back around.
The Raconteurs play the Taft Theatre on Sept. 14. Tickets/more show info: tafttheatre.org.