White has been coming to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calfornia, since first landing on the 2003 main stage with the White Stripes, and his headline set Saturday was panicked and polished, tying his many musical selves into a coherent whole. He stepped into the desert breeze in black pinstripes and white shoes, his hair sculpted into a thick wedge above his forehead, and quickly strapped on an electric guitar to rip open “Icky Thump.”
Leading his five-piece touring band, White wailed into the mic with extra intensity and speed, then erupted with the first of many wildman solos of the night. Several times during the set, he could be seen giving instructions to the band, shifting directions, keeping things spontaneous to the moment.
“Are you alive, California?” he shouted early on, wild-eyed and grinning, sounding more like a challenge than greeting. “I said are you alive and well?”
White picked up a well-worn acoustic for the White Stripes’ “Hotel Yorba,” joined by upright bass, pedal steel, fiddle and drums for a country stomp far richer than the two-piece original, but still reflecting the same joyous, welcoming sentiment. He brought out several songs from his 2014 solo album Lazaretto, including the eccentric “High Ball Stepper,” part psychedelic instrumental, part flaming guitar blues explosion.
White bounced high off the stage with an electric to launch into “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” crackling across the desert landscape like bolts of blue lightning through Coachella’s traditionally crisp and explosive outdoor sound system.
The man on keyboards was introduced by White as “Diva Dean” Fertita, a full member of White’s side-project the Dead Weather and also a guitarist in Queens of the Stone Age. Last year, Fertita was on the same stage during QOTSA’s windblown headline set, which should make him some kind of Coachella hall of fame candidate. On the playful “Just One Drink,” White traded vocals with fiddler Lillie Mae Rische. Daru Jones pounded the sharp, relentless beats beneath a white Kangol cap.
“This is the new world, is it not?” said White, facing a vast field of festival goers spread to the horizon, where he’d come before with the White Stripes, Dead Weather and the Raconteurs. He was back now as a fully realized solo artist.
The stage and band members were dressed for the occasion in matching shades of black, white and midnight blue, and the big video screens broadcast strictly in black and white. Above them were huge rectangular lights in the shape of “III,” both the symbol for his forward and backward-looking Third Man Records and his assumed name, Jack White III.
White paused to implore fans to “support your local artists, please,” to see local club shows, to buy music from new artists. His own early career depended on that kind of support, in the years before a pair of unknowns named Jack and Meg White were ever invited to a festival stage. He shouted, “I hope that you realize for a few minutes every day that music is sacred.”
Even with a full band, his earliest songs with the Stripes maintained their minimalist bite, from “Hello Operator” to “Ball and Biscuit.” The Raconteurs hit “Steady as She Goes” became a call and response, with the crowd instructed to shout back “Are you steady now?”
Fans needed no prompting after White and band left the stage, when they began spontaneously singing the musical hook from the White Stripes hit “Seven Nation Army” to demand an encore. At a festival where dance music and hip-hop are increasingly filling up the annual roster, it was a powerful signal of mass appeal for rock of intensity, drive and charisma.
Fans were rewarded with a five-song encore that ended with “Seven Nation Army,” colliding White’s bottleneck guitar with Jones standing at the drumkit bashing a brutal and increasingly chaotic beat. Fans shouted along until White knocked over a cymbal stand and tossed his guitar to the floor, where it echoed into the desert cool with a storm of feedback as the musicians left the stage, sermon completed.