Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jack White At The Hordern Pavilion 26/07/2012 Review

When I saw the Dead Weather in 2010 I was going to post a review but eventually decided against it because there was so little to say. It was amazing and there was very little to add to that and the incandescent electricity made any attempt to deconstruct it sort of pointless. But when Jack came round to our shores again this year I felt there was more to analyse and more to critique. You see I've had misgivings about Jack White's solo tour and it has nothing to do with the idea of him going solo, an allegiance to his previous bands, disenfranchisement with his new mainstream appeal or misplaced nostalgia. Something just didn't sit right about the tour from what I had heard and seen so far. I'd clumsily tried to explain it before and couldn't really articulate it but I think I finally figured out why I was so sceptical. When Jack was in the White Stripes he could never fully break free and just be a rock god, he was certainly captivating but the limitations of the band meant he had to be focused the whole time and this struggle (the key word to Jack's appeal) was what made it so compelling. When he was in The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather he made it clear he was not the frontman but the fact he managed to captivate your attention from the background while someone else was singing enhanced his mystique and made him seem even more appealing. Now that he's got his own band(s) that follow him completely he can truly be centre stage (literally) and doesn't have to flesh out the songs all by himself. It's still something to behold but that lack of struggle still made me less enthused than previous endeavours. I should probably clarify that these thoughts are independent of what I think of Blunderbuss which is a great album in it's own right. So this was my frame of mind before I went to the show and I now want to try and get across my feelings of the entire show. Buckle in, this is gonna be a long one.

First of all, the Hordern Pavilion is a soulless warehouse that seems to exacerbate every standard irritation to be found at a gig. I've been in heavier mosh pits, been in hotter venues, waited for a longer time but every time I go to the Hordern these little annoyances are amplified. On the bright side the sound is great but would it kill them to raise the floor. I did, however, see The White Stripes here back in 2006 so the nostalgia factor was kind of nice.

Anyway onto the show.

The crowd surged forward as The Buzzards came out and warmed up the stage as we all waited for Jack to make an appearance. After a minute of the boys bashing the shit out of every instrument they had Jack walked on liked he'd walked straight out the promo poster with a sky blue tele swung across his shoulder as if he was carrying a Blunderbuss. He launched into Black Math which was for my money a good choice, not too much of a hit but still a throwback to the golden age of The White Stripes. The new arrangement really does kick a lot of ass and while the stop start approach is a bit weird for an opening number its heartening to see no old tune treated as sacred and the crowd had no problem singing a long to the new tempo. When the big muff is slammed on and the 'ah ah ah ah ah's come in it is twice as slow and three times as heavy. I'd heard this arrangement before but it's a killer take on a nine year old song.

The band quickly followed this up with Missing Pieces which sounds much more exciting than it does on Blunderbuss. I would have gotten a bit annoyed by the surging crowd at this stage if it wasn't for the fact they sang along to every word of a new song that wasn't even a single. As far as I'm concerned, if you know every word of Missing Pieces you deserve to be up front. This was followed by Freedom At 21 which was another Blunderbuss crowd pleaser. The Buzzards version turns it into way more of a hard rock stomper and the crowd responded appropriately, once again singing along to every word. There was no denying that these were great songs played well but at this point in the concert its all so frantic in the pit that I wasn't exactly capturing the nuances of the Jack's performances. It's a rock concert though so I'm not complaining.

The first real stunner of the night was a backing-vocal free Love Interruption. It tamed the crowd a bit and really brought the strength of this band out. With the Peacocks the tune is played very smartly but perhaps a bit obviously. Here Jack really gets to flesh out the vocal line and breath new life into his first solo single. But it was Daru who really did the heavy lifting of the arrangement and you can see why Jack is so excited to have a hip hop drummer play along to folk melodies. He played the exact opposite to what you would expect and the songs was so much stronger for it. The verse was a slow burn with very light percussion while the chorus was one long crescendo to a climax that didn't come until the very end. This also featured a very funny moment as Jack, noticing Sydney's passion for singing along, stopped playing and gave us entire verse to sing. We completely fucked it up though because while we knew the words no one knew which verse went where and it was sort of like one of those school song moments that just collapses in on itself.

We redeemed ourselves however when Jack commented on our sing-along skills and asked us to help him out with Hotel Yorba. As great as the new country arrangement is it was all about the bare-bones of the song itself and I was transported back to 2006 in all its red, white and black glory. I don't think Jack needed to even sing any of the song because everyone knew every single word and of course he did cut out and let us handle it for almost half the tune. It was brilliantly placed in the set because nothing brings instant good vibes to a gig the same way Hotel Yorba does.

Jack diverted from the crowd-pleasers for You Know That I Know. No one knew what the hell was going on and shut up and swayed along, there were even a few lighters in the air. While I was the only one who was singing along in the immediate vicinity of where I was, everyone treated it with respect and it was clear to see why. The band really add such a nice flavour to what was a pretty great song to start with. Jack gets to do his best southern gentleman routine, going from humour to heartbreak and howls to whispers. The mandolin gets its big standout moment of the night while Daru just takes everything up a notch by once again playing against genre.

We were back to Blunderbuss with Hypocritical Kiss and Jack stayed on the acoustic this time round. That was a very good choice because the songs sounds really off every time he plays it on electric. The melody got a nice chance to shine and the loud-soft dynamics were given much more emphasis. I usually don't compliment fidelity to a studio recording in a concert but it was really appropriate for this song and when the band rocked out for the breakdown it was really stirring and actually benefited from not having Jack soloing all over the place. And of course he broke a string.

The first true highlight of the night came afterwards as Jack noodled around on his telecaster, slowly turning a haunting fingerpicked blues into a dark, menacing and understated performance of Cannon that was downright creepy. Of course this interpretation was predictably abandoned as the 'chorus' (read: notes become power chords) just about thrashed us all into oblivion. It's really weird that the most overtly White Stripes song played was one of the most appealing but Cannon is an even stronger riff than Seven Nation Army and fleshing it out really turns it into a masterpiece.

Cannon slowly turned into something else and it took me a while before I realised it but as soon as the rhythm came in it was clear that we were hearing the tour debut of Broken Boy Soldier. It was extremely excited just to hear such a great song but truth be told it didn't have the power of The Raconteurs version. The dense sound that The Raconteurs had down pat can't really be recreated by the Buzzards and I thought they needed to go a bit more outside the box to really make this great. But you can't argue with the power of those breakdowns.

We then got Weep Themselves to Sleep which is one of my favourite numbers from Blunderbuss and while I've heard some versions that are a bit rough around the edges, the guys nailed it here. Once again Daru really upped the ante with so many great flourishes all throughout the song. The loud soft dynamics were much stronger than usual, as the song requires, with the choruses being extremely explosive compared to the funky stuttering of the verses.

Moving to the piano, Jack introduced the band while noodling around on the keys slowly building up a riff that got more intense and turned into the midsection of Trash Tongue Talker. This new intro is really well placed and made the song a lot more fun. It's not exactly a masterpiece of composition but live he really managed to create something special out of it. In fact it may have gotten the crowd moving the most (besides the openers and the encores) which is really saying something for an old fashioned parlour style song.

The next song was another highlight of the night and a real surprise. Jack picked up his acoustic again (with a new string attached) and slowly jammed his way into a stunning rendition of On & On. This is probably my least favourite song on Blunderbuss but by switching to the acoustic and having Daru just do his thing (his downright awesome thing) the new arrangement managed to cut through the murk of the studio take and really bring out the lovely melody underneath. Everyone stood still and swayed for this one and it was quite beautiful with the band dropping out for the refrain as the crowd took over the lyrics.

This was immediately followed by another top-notch song, this time from over ten years ago. I've always thought that Same Boy You've Always Known was a great song but the full band really helps it become something even stronger. The pedal steel and the mandolin flesh out the melody and make the big rock and roll moments even bigger. When the 'yeah yeah's come in the band let rip entirely but come back down to almost a whisper for the verses. The actual arrangement itself is basically the same but no other song from the old days benefits from added textures quite like this one.

These two highlights were followed by the definitive moment of the night: I Cut Like A Buffalo. I shouldn't have enjoyed this nearly as much as I did. I'd heard it only two years ago live and most of the rest I'd never seen before but I just can't deny the power of this song and how amazing the various little tangents that the band goes down are. There's the Rakim intro jam that is as funky as all hell and once we get into the simple but stirring riff it just comes together beautifully. Instead of going back into the intro Jack pulled out his own little folk melody for the midsection. It shouldn't have worked but it did and when the band burst back into Buffalo the crowd went nuts. And in terms of climaxes, this song leaves all the rest behind as the riff is slowed down to a snails pace and slowly builds up to a HUGE finish that has Jack and the crowd shouting at the top of their voices 'I cut like a buffalo'!

Jack then moved over to the piano to noodle around on the piano before launching into Dead Leaves & The Dirty Ground. The bombastic take that has been opening concerts this year leaves me cold but with a piano instead of a guitar the melody was given room to breath and the band were finally able to claim this one as their own. Nothing will ever top Jack and Meg pounding through this as an opening number but with a new arrangement this was as strong as the song can be now.

And then came the big moment of the night: Blue Veins. Is there a greater springboard for Jack White's talents than this dark and moody blues number? The shrieking. The howling. The guitar work. I've watched The Raconteurs perform this a million times and I'll never get sick of it. If its not my favourite Jack White song then it is definitely in the top five. So did seeing it live blow my mind?

No. I'm really sad to say it didn't.

It wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination but it was neither the highlight of the concert nor anything close to the magic The Raconteurs can create from it. The major problem with it was that the Buzzards can't be The Raconteurs. I'm not saying The Raconteurs are a better band its just that they're very different and trying to copy them is futile. I got the impression that the band were played a Raconteurs show during rehearsals as the arrangement was lifted 100% from the live version that the Racs did. If it was the studio version they were copying, I could understand but to try and recreate a live version verbatim is an exercise in utter futility. It's the stuff of tribute bands and I expect more from Jack and The Buzzards. Jack himself was definitely performing well but it didn't feel as real as usual. Every time I've seen Blue Veins done live Jack completely disappears into the song and doesn't seem to even open his eyes, he's so overcome with emotion. I'm sure this is part performance but you certainly wouldn't know because it's such a convincing act or even genuine. But tonight this did feel like a performance. Instead of heartfelt larger than life drama this felt like melodrama. It's an extremely hard line to walk but if anyone can pull it off its him and tonight I don't think he did.

After an encore break where the entire crowd chanted the melody of Little Room (awesome) Jack re-emerged to burst into Sixteen Saltines. Quite frankly this was just a lot of noise and movement from where I was and I don't mean that as a criticism at all. It's just such a fast and heavy song that when coupled with such a lively crowd it becomes way more about the experience than the music.

Jack then treated us to Steady As She Goes which was a very, very pleasant surprise. Finally a Raconteurs song was given its due. I really should be over this song by now but I still can't resist it's charm. It does for me what Seven Nation Army does for everyone else, it's overexposure never threatening to overcome the pop pleasures that it possesses in spades. It really was a showcase for all the strengths of Jack's career. There were riffs a plenty, catchy melodies, some inspired guitar solos, extended jam sessions and a fantastic sing-a-long section. The same can basically be said for Hardest Button To Button. I've heard this song way more then anyone ever should and yet it never fails to get me going. When Jack bursts into the chorus and snarls about childhood petulance it's absolutely impossible not to jump up and down.

There's nothing left to say about Seven Nation Army at this stage so I'll simply say that while it may be a bit overexposed for my tastes there's no denying its power.

So did I change my mind about the solo tour? Well I certainly had a good time and Jack White can perform like no one else. But this is not in the same league as either The Dead Weather concert or The White Stripes show I've been to. With those you really get to see Jack struggle, fight against something and truly show the strength he's made of. Most people are glad to see him embrace what seemed like a foregone conclusion for so long: standing out front with a band built around him, singing every note and providing every guitar line. But for me the true genius of Jack lies in those moments where he's leaping from the keyboard to the drum-kit across the stage; when he's leering between Brendan Benson and Patrick Keeler like a caged animal waiting to be unleashed; or when he's commanding the entire stage while sitting down, confined to a drum stool. There probably won't be a gig this year that tops the one last night but I know Jack is capable of more. I wasn't disappointed, I had a good time and I definitely got my moneys worth but while the set list alone should have made me faint I know that what I saw last night wasn't what I fell in love with many years ago.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

#23 You're Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)

Within the White Stripes' fan base, just like any other artist, opinions are divided. Considering that the band never made a definite misstep in their catalogue of LPs its hard to find a very definitive consensus on what the 'best' White Stripes album is. Fans who were swept in with the wave of White Blood Cells or Elephant often stick to those albums, as do critics; the Detroit garage-rock loyalists will always maintain that the band's peak was during their first album; there are some, myself included, who view the dark and difficult Get Behind Me Satan as the true masterpiece; and there are many who would consider their grand finale Icky Thump to be the culmination of all the various pieces that made up the band previously and they would have Ben Blackwell to back them up. However I tend to think that if a White Stripes fan convention was held, when the time came to decide on the music, the one album that would appease everybody would be the cult favourite De Stijl. You like the no-frills garage rock? It's got it. You like the face-melting riffs that would make Jimmy Page proud? It's got it. You like the tender and well constructed pop that landed Jack at the White House to pay tribute to Paul McCartney? It's got it. You like rough and tumble motor-city translations of the delta blues? Hell yeah. What about all those other weird little musical forays that are unclassifiable yet distinctly White Stripes? Oh you betcha! So here is my pretty ballsy opening statement: De Stijl may be the perfect White Stripes album.

So why was White Blood Cells the breakout and not this album? I honestly have no idea. Context may have played a key role but when I listen to De Stijl with the benefit of hindsight I hear a band fully poised to take on the world. In fact I can easily imagine an alternate universe where You're Pretty Good Looking sent the band hurtling into the top 40. You see, this was, I believe, the first White Stripes song I ever heard. I obviously didn't see it as a masterpiece of composition, musicianship or production but it eventually drilled its way into my head until it was raking up plays on my iPod and pushing me to explore more of the red, white and black albums lying around. I've always thought that this experience could have been universal, this song always had the potential to be pissing us off at 00s themed parties for the rest of our lives. In this alternate universe The White Stripes would be cast off as one hit wonders and would spend the rest of their careers desperately trying to escape the image of 'that You're Pretty Good Looking band'. Let's all pause to be thankful this bleak alternate reality never occurred.

But I indulge in this flight of fancy for a reason. You're Pretty Good Looking is the first and best example of a very curious style: a White Stripes pop song. It's easy to forget that while the debut album and various singles occasionally took time out of the garage thrashers for an oddball parlour piano number, this was an extremely radical departure for the band at this point. As a Detroit garage two-piece that were recording in the living room, the Stripes were hardly the most obvious people to be pulling delicious pop songs out of nowhere but they did it anyway. The results are sweet and fun, playing the peppermint logo out beyond simple aesthetics. Of course garage pop is far from a contradiction, as Jack White will happily tell you. Them, The Kingsmen, The Sonics and many others were merely pop bands (their brand of rock n roll was the pop of the day) who played too fast and sloppy for the Ed Sullivan show. So while this track may be a big step away from their early material it certainly has precedent in the artists the band call their influences. The simplicity of the genre their playing, whether you call it garage rock or rock n roll, is really based on evoking a fairly primal reaction from the audience and often the best way to achieve that is light and infectious music that drags you and your favourite gal to the dance floor.

However there's something else going on here that needs to be addressed. The lyrics are fucking bizarre. The title itself is clever and catchy enough, the bracketed subtitle adds a petulant innocence that meshes well with the whole childlike nature of the bands images. But you hit roadblocks when you get to complete non-sequiters like 'this feeling's still gonna linger on until the year 2525 now' or 'your back is so broken'. The rhythm and tone of those lines feels perfect when humming along but are really out of place in this type of song when you think about it.

And that's both this song and the band in a nutshell. It's a collection of scattered and often conflicting ideas, sounds and images that mesh together to create something that makes perfect sense even though it doesn't. While it predates their true break into the mainstream, this song gives you an idea of how the band wormed their way into the public consciousness. They took old and worn out elements of western pop music and haphazardly reconstructed it in a way that was incredibly fresh at the time.

And also, it's a lot of goddamn fun.