Friday, May 25, 2012

Coming on Like a Hurricane - Jack White with Alabama Shakes

I'm a rolling thunder, a pouring rain
I'm coming on like a hurricane

 - AC/DC

"Hell's Bells" kept running through my head as I watched Jack White demolish Roseland Ballroom this past Tuesday. Touring behind his new solo album "Blunderbus", he was in total command. Total command of the audience, his band and his playing.  It was a remarkable show and well beyond what I was expecting.

Truth be told, I was there for the opener, Alabama Shakes. Readers of this blog know that I have been singing their praises from the first time I saw them at Bowery Ballroom in October. Since that CMJ show Alabama Shakes have been critical darlings and one of the fastest rising bands in the country. On Tuesday night they proved they are ready to jump to headliner.

One of the hardest things for a young band to do is make the transition to bigger and bigger stages. This is not the case for the Shakes, particularly their remarkable singer and guitar player Brittany Howard. Opening for Jack White is the perfect situation for this band. The room was already packed at 8pm and when they went on at 8:30 it felt like the entire sold out crowd was in the room, ready to go. From the opening bars of the first song Alabama Shakes had the crowd.

They delivered a strong forty minute set. But you could feel that as good as they were, they were already constrained by the opening slot. They were literally hemmed in, surrounded by Jack White's equipment, which left a small square of the stage for them to roam. They were also constrained by the forty minute set. Despite only having one record, you knew this band wanted to stretch out and just play and play. It was great set, but they were ready for more. So mark your calendars. June 24 Alabama Shakes headline Summer Stage in Central Park. It will be great.

Back to Jack. Full disclosure, I was never a White Stripes fan. Jack White's playing and songwriting ability was never in doubt for me, but the schtick, the Meg White bit, always left me cold. It wasn't until the Raconteurs that I began to really appreciate his talent. Being in a group seemed to free him from any pretense and let him stretch out. And having a a full band behind him really made a difference. He didn't have to carry the show anymore.

None of this prepared me for his set on Tuesday. I had heard a bit of Bunderbus and liked it. I knew he was touring with two full bands. An all male band (which played with him Monday night) and an all female band, which was the one I was hoping to see (and did). I was a little worried that this would be schtick. Two bands. One with guys dressed in black. One with gals dressed in white. The whole stage crew was dressed in dark suits, dark shirts and blues ties. And he is calling himself Jack White III. My fears where dispelled the minute they hit the stage. Actually, my fears were crushed with the force of a sledge hammer.

Jack White was literally surrounded by his top notch six piece band, the Peacocks. Drums, bass (electric and stand up), pedal steel, fiddle, back up vocal and keyboard were arranged in a semi circle around him. Resplendent in a powder blue suit and black shirt Jack White was as in command as any great performer I have ever seen. Everyone in the room was witnessing the full evolution of great artist.

The attention to every minute detail was there. As in the past, color scheme played an important part. All the women were dressed in some version of a white dress. Three long, white vertical banners hung behind the band, forming the III in Jack White III. Two specially made white spotlights flanked the stage. Three vertical cut outs (again forming the III) covered the light source, letting three long beams of light through. Even the towels on stage were black. At first glance the this looked like a band that could have toured with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family in the 60s.

Make no mistake though. This is a a formidable band and Jack White used them to their full potential. No longer trying to achieve some sort of purity with the two piece of the White Stripes or attempting to sublimate himself in a band (Raconteurs, Dead Weather), Jack White just let loose with a all the force he could muster. In addition to songs from Blunderbus the set included tracks from the Raconteurs (Top Yourself, Carolina Drama) and Dead Weather (Blue Blood Blues). But it was the White Stripes songs that were telling. On songs like "Hotel Yorba," "Hardest Button To Button" and "Ball and Biscuit" the band filled out the songs, giving them greater depth and force.

The key to it all was his remarkable drummer (I would love to know her name). She was tremendous and gave all the songs the weight that was so sorely missing in the past.  Led Zepplin would have been good with out John Bonham, but they wouldn't have been Led Zeppelin.

The AC/DC and Led Zeppelin references are no coincidence. Nether AC/DC or Led Zeppelin are Heavy Metal bands, though people lump them in. AC/DC is, at it's core, a barroom blues band and Led Zeppelin is built on Chicago Blues. Jack White's music is the same. But, like Angus Young and Jimmy Page, he is one of the heaviest guitar players when he wants to be. And with drums and bass behind him, he was a gale force onstage at Roseland.

As if the show couldn't get any better, Jack White did something I haven't seen anyone else do at Roseland. He come out for his encore, but not on the main stage. Instead, it was in the raised VIP area on the right side of Roseland. This is, in fact, the original stage from when Roseland Ballroom was an actual Ballroom. (This is also the reason the sound is general bad in Roseland. The room was designed for the sound to come from the original stage). A second band set up was behind the curtain on that stage and the VIPs were pushed to the edge so everyone one could see. Another great touch from Jack White and a great ending to a fantastic show.

Get Blunderbus. Go see Jack White III. If you are already a fan you will love it. If you are not a fan or skeptical, you will be a convert. Trust me, I know. I am a new member of the Church Of Jack.


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