As a sold-out Bomb Factory audience witnessed firsthand Sunday night, a Jack White live show is a two-hour trip inside the manic mind of an innovator.
There were howling roars of his signature blues riffs, jacked-up country-twang interludes and sizzling funk/hip-hop influences all on display just in the first three or four numbers of the set. What followed was a textbook display of a master at his craft working the angles of expertise while sampling new designs and visions.
As one of the biggest names in modern music, White carries with him a heavy burden. No longer consigned to the duo conformity of The White Stripes and on hiatus from his other projects — the snarling garage growl of The Dead Weather and the rollicking rock stomp of The Raconteurs — White has been on his own for the better part of this decade, experimenting with the classic forms that have always been his calling card while heading deeper into the mystical rabbit hole of his psyche.
Seen as someone who "gets it," White has been adored by fans and praised by critics for the creativity in his vision and the authenticity of his output. He overcame some initial post-White Stripes skepticism with a focus that has extended beyond the recording studio into full-blown entrepreneurship. His Third Man Records is a label behemoth, spanning multiple locations and carrying a roster of inspiring artists that blur the lines between standard genre boundaries. He marches to his own beat and does what strikes his fancy. Who else is a co-owner of a baseball bat and apparel company — the locally housed Warstic — cuts live albums straight to acetate or releases vinyl that plays back to front?
White's previous two solo releases, 2012's Blunderbuss and 2014's Lazaretto, earned the usual glowing accolades. However, sometime in the past three years, White's stock began to be viewed under a harsher lens. The culmination took place this year with the release of his third solo album, Boarding House Reach. Here, the brakes had come flying off. Whereas previously White would dabble in far-out Captain Beefheart/Frank Zappa-influenced takes, this time he's filled quite a bit of the album with them.
Although the album has its defenders, the release was greeted with the coolest reception of White's career. Had White, too, cashed out of the rock 'n' roll game, some wondered. Was he now moving into an experimental phase that would cancel out the gritty blues rock that sustained him for so long?
A simple answer, as witnessed live, would be no. Jack White is still a rock 'n' roll guitar god, now more than ever. He shredded his way through favorites like "Sixteen Saltines" and "The Hardest Button to Button" with renewed vigor and energy. He shrieked and yelped throughout each song with the gravity of a fiery preacher testifying to his hungry congregation. He reached out to the audience for participation and love, shouting the chorus of "Who's with me?" over and over during a searing performance of "Corporation," and then plaintively asked the assembled masses to fill in lyrical blanks during a New Orleans-flavored version of "Hotel Yorba."
White spent a good portion of each number gesticulating wildly while strumming his array of guitars that included the much-discussed new Eddie Van Halen and St. Vincent models, and flailing his arms and hair in reckless abandon. "How ya feeling tonight, Dallas, Texas?" was asked more than once in a revered twang that highlighted White's complete immersion in the moment.
Whether it's rehearsed or not, White's stage banter comes across unadorned, with hints of pure stream-of-consciousness. At one point, he offered unprompted medical advice.
"Take three huge deep breaths before you go to bed tonight," he said. "The kind of deep breaths where you feel like you'll hold your breath too long and die. Don't worry, you can't die. You'll just pass out."
Later, before closing out the evening with the fine murder ballad "Carolina Drama," he offered a pointed political commentary about Texas' lax gun laws.
"What's more difficult to buy than a gun in Texas? Let's list some things, y'all," he offered before rattling off a list of available options. Then, as if to make amends to anyone he might have offended, he gave shoutouts to a lengthy list of Texas cities before genuinely professing his heartfelt thanks to Dallas.
For this tour, White went all out with the stage design. Multitudes of strobe lights flashed aggressively and swaddled the band onstage with shadowy flair. Behind the band stood an imposingly tall video board that mixed close-up footage of band members with sci-fi-inspired video montages and bits of computer imagery that resembled '80s Atari games.
The board also served as a nifty framing device before the show began. There, as the various nattily attired roadies worked on setting the stage, White's silhouette appeared on screen at a control board twiddling knobs and resetting a timer that was counting down the minutes until the show began. As he occasionally peered out through the camera into the room, the crowd reacted with eager glee.
White has put together a thunderous crew that will serve him well as he heads out on the cavernous festival circuit this summer. He was backed by a four-piece — keyboardists Neal Evans and Quincy McCrary, bassist Dominic Davis and drummer Carla Azar. Each musician got the spotlight from time to time, but for most of the show, the band did its work in the shadows, flanking White aloft on rafters to his side.
White had a locked-in rapport with Azar as he repeatedly hopped up on the drum risers to punctuate solos and accentuate her propulsive beats. At times, White took up residence at a smaller drum kit to double up on the percussive action.
Although Sunday's setlist was a bit more punctuated than Friday's, White's deep catalog likely provided enough satisfaction for even the most discerning fan. He brought the house down at the end of the main set with a raucous version of "Seven Nation Army." Leading with a long buildup and then interspersing bits of "Have Love/Will Travel," White maniacally led the crowd in lengthy breakouts of the song's signature chant. After a couple of years of chanting the song away at sporting events, it was a joyous treat to be led along by the song's composer.
The newer numbers shined a bit brighter in a live setting, too. "Connected By Love" kicked off the encore with a gravitas it lacks on record, and the frenetic speak-sing vocal delivery of "Ice Station Zebra" makes better sense while viewing White and his band barreling away at it in full force.
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White enforces a strict no-cellphone policy on this tour. While perhaps causing panic and consternation for some, the process couldn't have been easier. A well-oiled machine of The Bomb Factory and Yondr (the company that manufactures the bags that house the phones) lined the streets outside the venue with clear directions and reminders of the policy. There was a fair-sized "cellphone use" space in the back of the venue for those who needed to check their phones, and the attendants fanned out among the crowd at show's end to unlock the cases. It was about as painless of a procedure as one could hope for.
With a sold-out Bomb Factory show Friday night and a charity baseball game featuring White and many local media and sports personalities Saturday, White was basically handed the keys to the city for the weekend. With all the adulation bestowed upon him, it's fair to think that he might make Dallas a more regular stop on future tours.
It would be criminal not to give a shout-out to opening act A Giant Dog. The Austin four-piece has been making some waves lately with its furious, amped-up blend of punk-rock snarl and garage-rock ethos. Led by frontwoman Sabrina Ellis, the band roared its way through an amped-up 40-minute set that barely paused for a second to slow things down. With a propulsion of rock energy behind her, Ellis howls with fury, twirls her body into contorted positions and swags out with the confidence of someone who's been onstage for decades.
The band is touring behind its latest album, Toy, and recently signed to powerhouse indie label Merge Records. You'll likely see and hear much more from A Giant Dog before the year is out.