Authenticity has always been of great importance to Jack White. The fact that he has embraced new technologies on the recently released ‘Boarding House Reach’ shows that perhaps his standards are beginning to change and evolve without compromising his traditional values. As the audience has their phones sealed in locked bags on the way into Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, it’s clear to see where White draws the line and it only makes for a more authentic experience.
Warming up the fast-filling and eager ballroom crowd was Brighton trio ‘Demob Happy’. Playing a room of this size was obviously something the band was used to but they warmed into it considerably throughout the half-hour set. Present in their sound was tight grooves and riffs along with 3-part vocal harmonies. They perhaps wore their influences on their sleeve (QOTSA, Black Keys, Led Zep) but it was certainly enjoyable.
Another thing that seems important to White is aesthetic. Even before he hit the stage this was plain to see. The stagehands were all dressed in custom waistcoats and hats and most things on stage are laid out in threes (three rows of spotlights, 3 guitars on each side of the stage, 3 mic stands at the front.) Everything was draped in blue light (as it remained for the entirety of the show). Any indication that White may have mellowed over the years as he hits the stage with a 4-piece backing band, brandishing a bottle glass of champagne and beckoning the crowd. As mad as ever, the band opens with a new single ‘Over and Over and Over’. This provoked White’s new limits from the get-go with the use of trigger pads, vocal effects, and live synths all augmenting his signature abrasive guitar tone and erratic vocals.
Famed for his improvisational style, White plays every show without a setlist and frequently alters the songs on the fly. This doesn’t just make for a unique experience but also brings a certain excitement to the show. Watching White almost conduct the band like a dysfunctional orchestra as well as seeing the musicians play off each other and respond to each other’s musical ideas is something rare to see. The extremely capable backing band was obviously loving every minute of being able to have the freedom to do what they wanted (within reason) and seeing them genuinely enjoying themselves made all the difference. At any moment, no one in the room except White himself knew what was going to happen next. Changing guitars as he pleased, often picking up one of the six laid out on stage then changing his mind and picking another up another, perhaps even he himself didn’t know. He would freely roam the stage, improvising guitar solos and playing off each of the musicians, often joining in with them by dueting on synth solos amongst other things. All of this added considerably to his authentic approach.
The set itself was a broad mix of tracks across White’s career and several bands. White Stripes classics ‘When I Hear My Name’, ‘Hotel Yorba’ and ‘Ball and Biscuit’ all featured in the main part of the set along with The Dead Weather’s ‘I Cut Like a Buffalo’, which saw White dragging a star-struck Demob Happy back on stage to jam with the band. Solo career staples ‘Hypocritical Kiss’, ‘Lazaretto’, and instrumental ‘High Ball Stepper’ also filled out the set. Leaving the stage after 15 songs, White stormed back on stage to announce that they were going to ‘play all night’. Although an obvious turn of phrase the band continued on to play a 12-song encore featuring hits including The Raconteurs’ ‘Steady as She Goes’, and The White Stripes’ ‘Icky Thump’, ‘My Doorbell’ (with White on drums), ‘Black Math’ and ‘The Hardest Button to Button. ‘Boarding House Reach’ track ‘Ice Station Zebra’ showed off White’s unhinged musical style by providing electronic-rock-jazz chaos whilst he also struck up the band for ‘Sixteen Saltines’ and ‘Freedom at 21’ from his debut solo album ‘Blunderbuss’. A cover of Beck’s ‘Devil’s Haircut’ was also a pleasant surprise addition to the latter half of the set.
Closing with the omnipresent ‘Seven Nation Army’, White evidently shows no resent for the song that made him a global icon. He continuously battled with his iconic hollow body guitar using a slide and jumped about the stage energetically whilst boisterously leading the crowd through the biggest sing-a-long of the night. Before bowing out after the final chords, White. In a moment of madness, jumped on to the upright piano at the back of the stage and violently rocked back and forth with his guitar in one hand and bottle of champagne in the other. Apart from thinking I was probably going to witness a rock icon sustain a major piano-related injury it seemed like a fitting representation of White’s performance itself. Despite being erratically rocked out of control and on the edge of tipping into total chaos, realistically White is always in control, he just likes to see how far he can push things. By pushing his boundaries out on ‘Boarding House Reach’ and tonight’s performance, it’s exciting to see how far he’ll push it in the future.