In the 15 years since the White Stripes formed in Detroit, Jack White has run with the fame offered to him by his namesake group’s candy-colored branding and simple, yet bludgeoning take on the blues. He has delved into side projects like the sprightly Raconteurs and the sultry Dead Weather; he has worked with legends like Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson; he played Elvis in the 2007 cutup Walk Hard; he even somehow managed to retain his dignity while going the reality-TV route, using his extensive collection of Americana as bargaining chips on an episode of American Pickers.
He has also had a bit of fun with the media, from floating the story that he and his former Stripes bandmate Meg White were once siblings (they’d actually been married, with Jack taking her name for professional purposes) to his latest stunt, where his vinyl-exoticist outfit Third Man Records released a thousand-copy run of singles via balloon. The records—flexidiscs, actually—were stuffed into helium balloons and set free from the label’s retail outpost in Nashville. “Statistics for similar balloon launches show a recovery rate of approximately 10 percent,” the announcement said, “so it’s quite possible that less than 100 of the 1,000 records launched will ever be discovered.” That the stunt took place on April 1, the day that so many lesser pranksters would merely threaten such a move and hope to reap the publicity rewards, seemed like an extension of the joke—White winking at the world, saying, Yes, I’ll do this. Just watch me.
The song on the flexidisc was the grimy “Freedom at 21,” taken from White’s first solo album, Blunderbuss (Third Man). The bitter, spat-out broadside rips into a woman who is more into modern conveniences and present-day hedonism than the day-to-day realities of a relationship with another human being. (The titular “freedom” isn’t the sort that one is granted when one is deemed old enough to drink in the U.S.; instead, it’s a “21st-century” brand that allows someone to walk all over a partner while being completely oblivious to doing so, thanks to the pair of shiny beeping gadgets taking up all her attention.)
That’s one of the more fiery moments on Blunderbuss, which, when compared to White’s other projects, seems downright subdued. This isn’t to say it’s inferior to his other work, though; if anything, the grounding makes the blues underpinnings come to the fore even more strongly. There’s a crying-sky grayness permeating the whole affair, one that even his singular yawp can’t completely ward off. (The color scheme for this album is based in the shades of blue that telegraph imminent clouds.) It’s full of lyrics that, even when seemingly recounting moments of happiness, are tinged with the opposite emotion; the title track is a slide-guitar-accented lament about an illicit affair handled clumsily that draws scorn as a result. Where the White Stripes’ work mostly brimmed with unbridled joy that was playfully childlike even at its most sinister, Blunderbuss‘s musical triumphs are smaller and more adult. “I’m Shakin'” tempers its hip-thrusting bloozy bluster with a reminder that Delilah led to Samson’s downfall; “Weep Themselves to Sleep” brings to mind a late-night-bar riff on the Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” with sweeping piano runs that pour out of even the tinniest speakers. (One suspects that White wouldn’t entirely approve of his album being heard through the low-quality amplification supplied by the combination of digital encoding and a laptop; such is the curse of our modern age.)
Blunderbuss might be subdued in the context of White’s career, but on Friday night at Webster Hall, he showed that he can still get fiery—the show was split into two parts, and during the first half, an all-woman backing band (known as the Peacocks) supported him while during the second, an all-male band (dubbed Los Buzzardos) backed him up. Bathed in blue, he kept the crowd in check. While both sets were undoubtedly energetic and studded with gems from all over his catalog, the show’s latter half felt looser, like it could have stretched into the night easily had the venue not had its weekly dance party scheduled to storm the gates as soon as the early-evening crowd had exited. (One curious wrinkle came near the show’s end, when White introduced the individual members of Los Buzzardos by name—a courtesy not extended at the end of the Peacocks’ set, despite the backup singer Ruby Amanfu serving as the night’s Most Valuable Supporting Player with her sinuous vocal counterpoints to White. The bare-bones “Love Interruption” was a particular highlight, with Amanfu’s harmonies giving extra oomph to White’s already-gut-punching observations on how love can completely wreck someone.)
The show was a bit anomalous from Webster Hall’s normal fare; it was part of the American Express–sponsored Unstaged series, in which the financial-services company pairs a musical artist and a director for the purposes of streaming shows on the music-biz-YouTube offshoot Vevo as they happen, and chopping individual songs’ performances into bite-size bits for later consumption. White’s show was lensed by Gary Oldman; previous entrants in the series have paired the Canadian anthem-bearers Arcade Fire with the surrealistic Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam and the synthpop standard-bearers Duran Duran with the singular David Lynch.
Webster Hall was, as befits a sponsored event headlined by one of the rock world’s bigger names, pretty crowded, and the sight lines supplied by Oldman’s take on events—which was streaming from well-placed screens hung around the balcony—transfixed a couple of my fellow concertgoers who were stuck behind either too many people or audience members who were too tall. Their fixations on the crystal-clear displays provided a marked (and likely unintentional) contrast to White’s fetishistic view of the vinyl format and his on-record disdain for the way technology can detract from the experience of being in the same place as someone and vibing off them. That those people still appreciated White’s sweat-drenched output, though, was probably what mattered in the end.