By: Luke “Diamond” Phillips
The prodigal son of Detroit neo-garage returned to his old stomping grounds this Thursday for his first solo-billed hometown show. Supporting his new debut solo album Blunderbuss, Jack White — the former frontman for The White Stripes and Third Man Records label owner — headlined a 2 p.m. matinee set that blazed through various touchpoints in his discography, with plenty of surprises along the way.
And this was only the first of two sets performed that day.
The midday crowd was piqued with anticipation as hundreds of fans milled in and around the Masonic Temple, where Jack was to perform his blues-based, sometimes rootsy garage rock inside the 1,500-capacity Scottish Rite Theatre. The diverse audience was a mixed bag of White acolytes, the hip middle-aged, Detroit scenesters, and bros who probably really dig it when commercials use those awful fake Black Keys-soundalikes as background music.
With the original evening concert selling out within hours of tickets going onsale, this matinee show was added to appease ravenous fan demand. However, in the type of Wonka-ian twist Jack White has become renown for within the last decade, tickets were only available for purchase at U.H.F. Records in Royal Oak. Within a few days of the show, those tickets also sold out. Also of note, White’s own Third Man Records Rolling Record Store was precariously parked in the lot behind the Masonic Temple, hawking wares to whichever J.W. superfans were clever enough to spy it.
Detroit-based opening act Pop Goes Duane (formerly known as Duane the Teenaged Weirdo) warmed up the crowd with his special brand of Prince-reborn-as-garage-punk shenanigans, including a bizarre moment where he sat on the edge of the stage while the Pallet Town theme from Pokémon washed over the monitors. Duane ended his set by running through his Third Man Records single “Postcard From Hell,” which made for a nice precursor for what was to come.
Several dapper, White-affiliated stagehands strode onstage, dressed in snazzy suits and fedoras, and set up equipment (Jack’s own amps were stacked in a row of three, matching the tri-column backdrop at the rear of the stage – the man likes his thematic symmetry.) While they tended to this, the audience’s eager restlessness was palatable. As the house lights finally dimmed and the stagelights bathed everything in hues of blue (Jack’s new favorite color of choice for this album cycle/tour) White’s tour band took the stage. Another offbeat aspect of this maiden solo tour is that Jack has been rehearsing and performing with two different but similarly-outfitted bands (one all-female and one all-male) and arbitrarily trading off who plays when. The all-female iteration of Jack’s band, dubbed The Peacocks, would end up playing the evening show at the Scottish Rite, but for this matinee set, we were witness to “Los Buzzardos,” the all-male band.
Clad in all black and trailing ever-so slightly behind his bandmates, Jack White III kicked the set off in the first of countless many crowd-pleasing moments – by tearing into the opening chords of The Stripes’ “Black Math.” After a loopy, tempo-shifting, (but still muscular) version of that fan favorite track, Jack stepped into his singer-songwriter mode, donning an acoustic guitar to run through several faithful versions of Blunderbuss tracks that established their rightful place alongside White’s ever-expanding canon.
While a scroll — yes, a scroll — ostensibly containing a rough set outline was originally laid out in front of the band, Jack would often mouth extemporaneous song cues to the players just as another song was wrapping up. Amongst the set highlights was a rendition of “Two Against One,” the Jack-assisted track from Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi’s Rome project; lacerating, definitive versions of “I Cut Like a Buffalo” and “Blue Blood Blues” by The Dead Weather; a midset blues jam that mutated into a cover of “300 Pounds of Joy” by Howlin’ Wolf; and a further cover of Hank Williams’ “You Know That I Know.” Strangely, no Raconteurs tracks were covered (at least one has been played during previous shows,) which is especially odd considering that they are essentially a Detroit garage supergroup of sorts. Perhaps in light of this, Jack treated the audience to a generous portion of White Stripes songs, which were rapturously received by the crowd of devotees. These Stripes classics included a touching full-band version of “We’re Going to Be Friends” with a mild country lilt; a guitarless, piano-led “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground;” early Stripes deep cut “Hello Operator;” and even a tease of the “Union Forever” intro. Thankfully, the fuller, five-piece setup didn’t diminish the inherent greatness of these White Stripes originals. In fact, more than anything, Jack and Meg’s arrangements were emboldened by the bigger band, and proved that these songs could be given a more fleshed-out treatment without sacrificing the charm of their initial spareness.
No longer restricted to playing with just his supposed sibling/actual ex-wife Meg, (or more ensemble roles in aforementioned side projects The Raconteurs and Dead Weather,) Jack utilized his newfound freedom to not only highlight the strengths in his recent solo material, but also within his crack backing band. The five members of Los Buzzardos often pulled double duty throughout the show, giving each song arrangement an intricate but still heavy bed (combos of pedal steel/fiddle, upright bass/bass guitar, and mandolin/harmonica were frequently interchanged midsong.) Clearly, the Buzzardos with the best reception from the audience were drummer Daru Jones and Ikey Owens, former keyboardist for The Mars Volta, who goosed Jack along the entire set with their frenzied playing and showmanship. Jones often preened over his drums as he played, his kit placed directly next to Jack’s equipment. Serving as Jack’s foil (in much the same fashion Meg did during Stripes live shows) Jack would consistently turn to face Jones and give direction. In comparison to Meg’s primal pounding, however, Jones’ drum style lended itself to a busier but nonetheless solid technique. Jack himself switched between playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and piano at a whirlwind pace.
While Songwriting Jack was in full-force, he also spent plenty of time reconfirming his guitar hero status during the set. Jack seared into volcanic guitar leads like an electric knife through our collective souls. His tone, placed ear-crushingly high in the mix, was a white (pardon the pun) noise blast of pure, perfect, raunchy raw power that leaped out of the monitors. The audience was beside themselves every instance in which he worked his way up the neck of his (thematically!) baby blue Telecaster. The sounds Jack wrung from his instrument drove the crowd to instantaneous cheering, whooping, hollering, and unselfconscious dancing in place. This fervor reached a fever pitch during the climactic, house-busting extended solo runs during perennial Stripes favorite “Ball & Biscuit,” which was played just before encore.
And what an encore it was. Upon returning to his still-blue stage with Los Buzzardos in tow, a now short-sleeved Jack ripped into electric Blunderbuss single “Freedom at 21,” teased the intro to his James Bond theme “Another Way to Die,” served the crowd some more welcome White Stripes manna with “The Hardest Button to Button,” and wrapped everything up through a tumultuous take on Blunderbuss’s coda, “Take Me With You As You Go.” For a rare afternoon set by one of rock’s most enigmatic talents, Jack White certainly did not disappoint the sea of candy cane children that stood before him. What’s more, he proved that his personal brand of luddite rock is perfectly comfortable on its own, under a single vision, and without the facade of collaboration. Meg who?