Better Than: Lightning caught in a bottle, shaken up and popped off. Twice.
Run the Jewels and Jack White are unlikely bill buddies outside of a festival lineup, but the rap duo and the Third Man Records president matched each other note for note as far as intensity, engagement, and all-around enthusiasm at Madison Square Garden — and the special guests they both tapped for the occasion certainly didn’t hurt.
2014 was a momentous year for both acts: White toured relentlessly behind Lazaretto, his second solo full-length that would go on to break vinyl sales records and rack up a number of Grammy nominations. Run the Jewels dropped RTJ 2 and topped a number of year-end lists (including ours) for their unbridled, bold sophomore effort.
Both acts could have toasted to 2014 and left their achievements in the last calendar year. Instead, they’re building on the momentum of all they’ve achieved while letting the world know that they’re not interested in resting on their laurels. Run the Jewels — producer El-P and MC Killer Mike — may be spitting fire one cutting, politically charged line at a time, and White is sprinting up and down the stage trading off ear-searing solos and country-fied jams of a Nashvillian ilk with his band, but they’re both far from tired of the routine that’s worked for them for the past thirteen months.
From the jump, the pulse of the evening was steady, deafening and high-watt in every way. El-P’s sincerity was endearing as hell as he was clearly overcome by the fact that he was on the MSG stage, a notable feat for any musician, let alone a native New Yorker, and the flame of his joy was maddeningly fanned by Killer Mike’s delivery and dance moves. (Why Mike hasn’t released a step-by-step video for his exquisite breakdown in “Get It” is beyond me, so get on it, internet.) “Lie, Cheat, Steal” and “Christmas Miracle” spoke to the strongest side of the duo’s partnership in that the concerned, angry, and frustrated undercurrent of many of their lyrics doesn’t go away, even if they’re giggling and boasting the goofiest grins on the changeover.
From “Sea Legs” to “Blockbuster Night Part 1” to “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” — the latter featuring a very turnt Zack de la Rocha, of Rage Against the Machine repute — El-P and Killer Mike barely took a breath between volleys. In less than an hour, they left Madison Square Garden with scores of newly converted fans who previously had no idea what the evening held beyond some sick guitar work and “Seven Nation Army.”
As for White, he met the standard Run the Jewels set and plowed through a career-spanning row, with Lazaretto cuts shouldered up against White Stripes and Raconteurs tunes, a practice he’s kept up as he’s gone from headlining festival gigs to selling out stadiums in the past year.
Since White moved to Nashville and set up shop with Third Man, he’s copped the shadow of a Southern accent and traded in his less-refined guitar sensibilities for straight studio chops the gentlemen over on Music Row wouldn’t turn their nose up at. He’s embraced this infusion of local flavor, and it’s informed the twangier versions of “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Going to Be Friends” that have consistently stood out as set highlights throughout 2014’s festival season. (The killer band he’s assembled, complete with the exceptional Lillie Mae Rische, who juggles the fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, and more throughout the show, is to be thanked for this as well.) That said, to see White lose himself in his ear-splitting solos is to see White in his element, where he’s running around in a frenzy and tangling himself up in the cord that barely keeps his ax tethered to its amplifier, all while coaxing shrieks and strident tears from his guitar with surgical precision. Yeah, a ton of White fans sold out Madison Square Garden for the sole purpose of belting back the now iconic lows of “Seven Nation Army,” but Lazaretto and the live show it inspired present White at his best.
Critical Bias: Lazaretto dropped in June of 2014. White headlined Governors Ball, Bonnaroo, Forecastle, Newport Folk, and more shortly thereafter. He’s been carting that creepy blue stage set that looks like a cross between American Bandstand and Beetlejuice all over the world while working out “High Ball Stepper” and “Three Women,” and his live show is, more or less, exactly the same as it was when he started touring in support of the album last summer. That said, White doesn’t stick to a stagnant setlist, and the covers and cameos he works in to the fold keep things captivating. Q-Tip flew out of the wings to lend a few verses to “Black Bat Licorice” that had MSG keeling over in a fit of joy, and the back-and-forth between catalog favorites (“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”; “Steady as She Goes”) wasn’t a carbon copy of the sets we’ve seen previously. Every Jack White show feels like the first Jack White show, or at least that’s what the start of 2015 feels like as he continues to tour behind his latest.
Overheard: “CHUBBY KID PROBLEMS!” Killer Mike had to pause to adjust his pants as they were in the process of hitting the floor courtesy of his exceptional, aerobic moves. (That’s more likely a “rad dancer” than a “chubby kid” problem, Mike.)
Random Notebook Dump: “Is that a small child?!” At one point in the encore, a kid was perched on the shoulders of, presumably, a parent who really, really wanted their kid to have a good look at White’s tortured face throughout “Would You Fight for My Love?” If you’re that parent, we hope you got your kid some earplugs, because BAD FORM otherwise. If you’re a tiny woman who was hoisted on the shoulders of another person and could easily be mistaken for a fourth-grader, carry on.