“This place is so cool,” Billie Eilish exclaimed, glancing around Third Man Records’ low-lit Blue Room between songs of her unannounced show on Wednesday at the Nashville outpost of Jack White’s monument to all things analog.
Like all performances at the 250-capacity room, Eilish’s set was being recorded direct-to-acetate on the premises, with a crew of white-coated engineers overseeing the operation in view of the audience through a window at stage left and a video screen above the soundboard. “Do you see that? They’re like, making my voice, onto a thing, like, right now,” said Eilish.
Secret shows by superstar acts at Third Man Nashville are not without precedent. Pearl Jam famously rocked the Blue Room in 2016 ahead of their headlining set at Bonnaroo that year; White last appeared there as a performer for three gigs in March 2018.
Still, that the Gen-Z pop sensation born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell would be gracing these intimate environs on a random mid-autumn night in Middle Tennessee, in the wake of her massive debut LP When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and its ubiquitous smash single “Bad Guy,” required some suspension of disbelief for the invite-only crowd — a Venn diagram of local scenesters, industry types and mom-and-dad-of-the-year-candidates with kids in tow.
A clean-cut-looking White stepped out briefly to intro Eilish and give his seal of approval, calling her “someone we really love who we think is really innovative and inspiring.” Seated on a chair beside her brother, multi-instrumentalist Finneas O’Connell, and cutting a unique figure with her slime-green hair, oversized ski jacket and leather pants, Eilish conjured memories of classic MTV Unplugged performances of the Nineties with a set that found a goldilocks zone between icy and warm.
Where a full-scale Eilish concert is a maelstrom of macabre visuals, seizure-inducing lights and screaming teen admirers, at Third Man she was freed from having to simultaneously work a giant stage, hype up an audience and sing the songs. Elemental versions of the mischievous, vaguely menacing “All The Good Girls Go to Hell” and “Bury a Friend” elicited rapturous call-and-response from those up front; for the neo-soul-styled “idontwannabeyouanymore,” meanwhile, and “Come Out and Play,” a heartstring-tugging standout which had shades of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” there was pin-drop quiet.
With 22-year-old Finneas handling lower-register harmonies while deftly alternating between somber piano and propulsive, palm-muted and arpeggiated guitar, Eilish’s dreamy, understated vocals were front and center. Over the entire 40-minute set, there was not a bad note hit. The only hiccup came when she botched the lyrics to the first chorus of “Bad Guy,” of all songs, then calmly shrugged it off — what can you do? That moment, and the rest of the 11-song performance, will be immortalized on a Third Man live LP sometime in coming months.
“Thank you so much to Jack White for having us here and inspiring a whole generation of people to do what they want,” Eilish remarked before wrapping her set, leaving the door wide open for potential future collabs, not unlikely given White’s proclivity to such things. Eilish and White might be separated by two generations — she’d just been born when the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather main man was ascending to household-name status with the Stripes’ White Blood Cells — but with their iconoclastic streaks and the cults of personality around them, they seem kindred spirits.