Jack White, with all his might and an all-girl band and a deep catalogue, can’t beat the gulag atmosphere of Festival Hall.
“What will he do?” I suspect that was the question simmering across Festival Hall tonight, apart from the constant, inevitable, “When will someone burn this venue to the ground?” Jack White himself, enigmatic Wonka-esque figure of country and blues, has a back catalogue to put most artists to shame. And not just in volume but breadth. So, with his solo debut finally emerging this year, just what will he do?
A delectable sampling of everything, it turns out. Much like Blunderbuss should’ve started with ‘Sixteen Saltines’, tonight’s show also should’ve but didn’t, his all-girl band emerging and White striding onto stage to kick off with the White Stripes’ ‘Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground’. Then, the raw slashes of the song start but get smeary with an overblown sound system, a cavernous prison hall venue, and six additional players on violin, double bass, keys, drums, lap steel and percussion.
Blunderbuss tunes got a healthy, welcome airing and acquit themselves well with the expanded band. They produce a groovier sound that somehow transforms White’s skeletal blues into rollicking honky tonk. After ‘Missing Pieces’ and ‘Love Interruption’, a version of super-early White Stripes tune ‘Hotel Yorba’ sounds like a ol’ fashioned country hoedown with the seven-piece treatment.
White heads to the piano for a somnambulant double: a robust, dramatic version of ‘Weep Themselves To Sleep’ and an endearingly corny ‘I Guess I Should Go To Sleep’ redolent of Tin Pan Alley. Then, more surprises, as he has a reedy shot at the Rome project tune ‘Two Against One’. He also slipped in a Hank Williams cover and a Dead Weather tune.
The punches come back with ‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’ and the glassy-eyed crowds seated in the fenced-off wings actually pipe up. Yet the seats are not built for standing in front of. So the awkward bustle on the GA area had to make do for excitement. ‘Take Me With You When You Go’ livened them up again with a squally second half, but the blue stage lights reflecting off the retinas of the static bleacher crowd gave the show all the atmosphere of Apple’s ‘1984’ commercial.
White mixes it up again on The Raconteurs track ‘Steady As She Goes’ which engendered a little hip-shaking. Then they cut off the beer. The final indignity when I finally give up (following the smoke haze in the bathrooms due to no pass-outs or outdoor smoking area, and the fact that bar lines cross entry doors, and the tetchy security guards everywhere, and the general orientation which means the vast majority of the crowd are forced to watch the sides of the stage) is that punters have to cross the entire venue to leave, as only one door out of twelve is an exit.
What will Jack White do? Almost anything he likes. And do it with good spirit and panache. But even his pneumatic blues, ramshackle country, and a slinky, accomplished band can’t bring any vibe to this soulless barn of a venue. If someone brings the kindling, I’ll bring the marshmallows.