Jack White Live in L.A.: Like Watching Led Zeppelin Play the Opry

Former White Stripes frontman offers heavy takes on old hits at the Mayan Theater

Jack White performs at the Mayan in Los Angeles, California.
Paul R. Giunta/Getty Images
June 12, 2014 11:05 AM ET

After two decades in the music business, Jack White may have put together the heaviest band of his career: a five-piece backing group that features veterans from his gender-split backing bands the Peacocks and the Buzzards, including violinist Lillie May Rische. When they hit a groove last night at the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles, it felt like watching Led Zeppelin play the Grand Ole Opry: raw blues power, finesse and a generous helping of fiddle.

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White has made a career out of picking severe stylistic limitations and then finding as much nuance as he can in a narrow patch of ground. Last night, for example, the band spent the entire evening bathed in the same cold blue light — although they did bust out a disco ball to send blue beams into the audience during the White Stripes' "You've Got Her in Your Pocket." (The modernist stage set looked like something Stanley Kubrick might have designed if 2001: A Space Odyssey had ended with a rock show.) But while this band has the power of a sledgehammer, it also has the precision of a Phillips-head screwdriver. From the opening notes of "Icky Thump," the six musicians moved effortlessly from one song the next, sometimes pausing just long enough for White to introduce a song by saying, "We're going to play it a different way now."

The set list included generous helpings of White's new solo album, Lazaretto, and the White Stripes' songbook, not to mention selections from the Raconteurs and Dead Weather. Highlights included stomping, country-fried takes on the White Stripes' "Hotel Yorba" and "I'm Slowly Turning into You," a sweetly harmonized "Love Interruption" (from his 2012 solo record Blunderbuss) and a nine-minute version of the Raconteurs' "Top Yourself." After three shows on his world tour, White has made it clear that his entire back catalog is up for grabs — and those of other musicians are too. During the encores, a version of "Sixteen Saltines" included a chunk of the Beck song "Devil's Haircut," with White howling the lyrics like his leg was caught in a trap. White seemed in good spirits throughout the evening: He kept jumping onto the drum riser, he gently mocked the Mayan Theater's architecture and he soloed on guitar like he had been taking detailed notes when he appeared with Jimmy Page in the documentary It Might Get Loud.

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When it came time for the inevitable "Seven Nation Army," the audience sang the guitar riff like they were Miami Heat fans. The only thing missing was LeBron James getting on the microphone to shout "I'm going to Wichita!" But the evening's final number, a cover of Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene," did include a couple of random celebrity guests: John C. Reilly and Conan O'Brien both came onstage to play guitar.

The opening act: local heroes Cold War Kids, playing soul-shouting anthems that made them sound like they should be headlining the largest venue in Glasgow circa 1988, instead of doing an opening set surrounded by White's shrouded equipment. Singer Nathan Willett told the story of how they were supposed to open for the White Stripes at the Forum seven years ago — a gig that got cancelled when the White Stripes broke up. When Jack White is around, the past bubbles up in unexpected but gratifying ways.

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