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Jack White: How I Play a Set-List-Free Show

A seriously detailed look at how one of rock’s most unpredictable performers keeps audiences guessing

Jack White walks us through one of his recent set lists, song by song.

David James Swanson

During his time in the White Stripes and with his many solo bands since, one thing has always stayed the same about Jack White‘s live show: no set lists. “I want the show to be alive,” he says. “And I want each show to be different so that the crowd is in control of what’s really happening onstage, whether they know it or not.” This approach has created magic – like a recent 27-song Brooklyn show where he revived deep cuts like the Raconteurs ballad “Carolina Drama” – and disappointment; in 2012 White was unimpressed with the audience at Radio City Music Hall and walked offstage after less than an hour.

The no-set-lists rule is one of the many ways White tries to keep his shows exciting. He also keeps his tours short (“It’s a way of making sure that I don’t get into any ruts. I like going on tour for two, two-and-a-half weeks because it resets everything in your brain”) and bans cellphones, asking fans to lock them up in pouches for the show. “I’m happy people are happy with it,” he says of the feedback he’s been getting. “I thought it’s an experiment to see what will people do in this scenario. I kinda wanted it to be like going to an escape room or going to a movie theater. And everyone has been just gangbusters happy about it, which is so shocking and surprising, and so many other bands have been calling us and saying, ‘How are you guys doing that? We’re thinking about doing that too.’ The most negative thing I’ve heard is people don’t know what time it is anymore.”

On his Boarding House Reach tour this summer, White has recruited a band that includes drummer Carla Azar, bassist Dominic Davis and pianists Quincy McCrary and Neal Evans. They come from very different backgrounds – Evans has played with Soulive for two decades while Davis is a Nashville session pro. “It always surprises me when people who barely know each other just play music together and it works out. You really don’t need to know each other.” That gives White an idea. “Maybe one day, it’d be interesting to do a tour where none of the musicians are allowed to speak to each other. They only see each other onstage. That would be an interesting experiment.”

We asked him to take us inside his showtime brain and walk us through how he decides what to play on the fly. White chose to talk about his May 2nd show at the Austin360 Amphitheater.

“Over and Over and Over” (2018)
White recorded this frenetic rocker with everyone from the White Stripes to Jay-Z before finally getting it right on Boarding House Reach – so it makes sense that it’s the first thing he wants to play when he steps onstage. “In 2018, this is really the song I want to project to people,” he says. “It’s really powerful to start the set off with it, and I think there’s a strangeness to it. It can be off-putting. I love that zone.” The voices of longtime Nashville trio the McCrary Sisters can be heard during the song, even though they aren’t onstage. “We’re sampling the background vocals with a sample pad, which I never would have done in the past,” he says. “So it’s really interesting to hear the McCrary Sisters’ vocals just pop out in the speakers when they’re not even there. This is something that everybody else has been doing for forever, but I’ve just never done it before.”

“Corporation” (2018)
This “Superstition”-style funk groove has White freestyling about capitalism and forming a giant army. “The vocals are different every night,” he says. “‘Corporation’ is what really gets me revved up. It’s the song people are still learning, too. It’s weird when you play a song that’s only been out for a few weeks, compared to a song that people have been listening to for 15 years in their car. That really drives you as a musician: It’s new and it’s in the moment.”

“Cannon” (1999)
White still loves getting lost in this descending blues riff, which he’s been breaking out regularly since 1998. “I might play it three or four times a night,” he says. “‘Cannon,’ to me, is a MacGuffin – it’s like a placeholder for me to take a breath and let the crowd have a groove for a second and then break into a different song. That night, it’s one of those things I played for 40 seconds and then we went into ‘Broken Boy Soldiers,’ the Raconteurs song.”

White’s drummer Carla Azar

“Broken Boy Soldiers” (2006)
“Sometimes, if you sense even two seconds of the crowd being antsy or being anxious, it’s time to turn on a dime and try something different. We hadn’t played ‘Broken Boy’ in a while. It was in the same key of E [as “Cannon”], so I thought, ‘Let’s give that a second, see if that captures anybody’s imagination.’ And it did. As I go on the road, it’s wild how many Raconteurs fans there are. It’s hard for me to play too many of those songs because they are so co-written – there’s only a few that I actually sing by myself.” [The rest were sung by Brendan Benson.]

“Battle Cry” (2018)
This scorching instrumental is one of the wildest moments of the night. The song recently became the walk-up music for Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, who, along with White, co-owns the baseball bat company Warstic. White has been playing baseball before shows – a bat he used at a charity game in Cooperstown, New York, on May 27th was just inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  “I love the Tigers, especially the ’84 team,” White said recently. “I have great memories of going to the ballpark with my mom.”

“Hotel Yorba” (2001)
“It makes people happy really quickly,” he says of this White Blood Cells classic, which was inspired by Woody Guthrie: “[Woody] wanted his songs to make people happy and make them feel good about themselves. He didn’t like songs that make you feel down about yourself, which is an interesting statement. So I think ‘Hotel Yorba’ is definitely in that category. We changed it. In the beginning of the tour, we were doing it as a polka. Now it has more of a ‘Mystery Train’ kind of rhythm.”

“My Doorbell” (2005)
“I love to sing ‘My Doorbell,’ but I don’t like to play the notes,” he says of this Motown-influenced Stripes tune. “It’s a harsh rhythm. I wish I could play the drums and sing it – I love Meg [White]’s drumbeat on that song.” These days, that beat is played by White’s drummer Carla Azar, whose dense, fast rhythms power White’s most innovative material in years. “She’s really perfect for this tour – she’s just completely unafraid to dive right in,” White says.

But White hasn’t forgotten the greatness of Meg White, whose drumming critics once saw as elementary. That’s changed. “Once people all understand what she’s doing, it becomes incredibly beautiful to them,” White says. “She’s beautiful. She really made the songs we wrote back then, or I wrote back then … she brought them to life.”

“Hypermisophoniac” (2018)
White wrote this song inspired by misophonia (a.k.a. selective sound sensitivity syndrome), a condition where mild noises – chewing, yawning, whistling – can send someone into a rage. White used his sons fidget cube toy to create the tune, along with an off-key piano and other grating effects. “There are these people who have a hatred of sound, and certain sounds drive them to tears,” White has said of the song. “[I] thought, ‘What if we took annoying sounds with a recording, annoying musical sounds, and tried to make something beautiful out of them?’”

“Blunderbuss” (2012)
While this song was recorded acoustically, “we’re playing electric just to see how that goes for a while,” he says. “I’m not sure if I like it better electric or not, but for now it feels very electric and electronic at the same time.”

“Missing Pieces” (2012)
White sings about a Misery-like scenario of having his body parts removed against his will on this song. “Somebody’s stalking pieces of the character in the song’s body while he’s sleeping,” White once told NME, “and I just wanted to turn it into a bigger metaphor about relationships and what it all means.”

“If I’m playing a White Stripes song, it has to feel alive to me,” says White. “Sometimes, if it doesn’t, I’ll [think], ‘If I keep doing this, I’m gonna be playing casinos in 10 years.'”

“I Think I Smell a Rat” (2001)
This White Blood Cells song is one of the White Stripes’ simplest – and most powerful. White is cautious about playing songs by his classic band, who broke up in 2011. “I have no interest in being any kind of nostalgia act in any context. If I’m playing a song from Dead Weather or the White Stripes, it has to be alive, and in that moment it has to make sense to me. Sometimes, if it doesn’t, I’ll just stop playing and move on to another song because it’s not a good head space to be in. It just makes me feel like, ‘Ugh, if I keep doing this, I’m gonna be playing casinos in 10 years.'”

“Why Walk a Dog?” (2018)
In concert, this oddball ballad turns into a launching pad for psychedelic guitar fireworks. “I thought it was gonna put everyone to sleep because it’s so slow,” White says. “But people keep saying it’s one of their favorites. It doesn’t make sense to me. They must be getting something out of it.”

“Trash Tongue Talker” (2012)
“That must be on Blunderbuss, I think,” says White. [It is.] “I thought ‘I don’t know about this one.’ But again, it’s always gotten a response from people, so it’s interesting.”

“Love Interruption” (2012)
One of White’s first songs as a solo artist. “As a songwriter, it’s really dangerous to use the word ‘love’ in a song,” White said in 2012. “It’s a word that has been used in songs so many millions of times before, and it’s the most popular topic to ever write about. So I thought that if I was going to be brave enough to actually use the word ‘love’ in a song, I better be trying to make people think about it – and make myself think about it. I really wanted to stir up the notion of what love could mean, and what we really want when we say that word. It’s a very powerful word.”

“Hellhound on My Trail” (1937)
White wasn’t planning to play this Robert Johnson classic until he heard someone talking about Christmas backstage. “It reminded me of the lyric ‘If today was Christmas Eve, and tomorrow was Christmas Day,’” he says. “I always thought that was a nice, simple line. So this song just popped in my head.”

Although White has reinvented many songs over the years – Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” – he chooses them carefully onstage. “One thing that’s hard for me to do is to do cover songs that I did in other bands, you know, like we did a song by Van Morrison in the Dead Weather [“You Just Can’t Win”]. I couldn’t do that, and I couldn’t do ‘Jolene’ like we did in White Stripes shows. ‘Death Letter’ was such a strong cover song for the White Stripes that it’s hard for me to do. … I don’t really know why. I can’t really explain why. It doesn’t really make sense in a lot of ways, but I see something wrong with me doing ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’ or ‘Jolene,’ you know?”

“Little Bird” (2000)
Since he was already playing slide guitar, White couldn’t help but unleash this haunting De Stijl stomper. “I wish I’d written more slide songs over the years,” he says. “But it’s kind of a scary thing. I sometimes stay away from things that are very natural to me. Every time I sit down on the pedal steel guitar, I get up very quickly. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, you’ll never see me again.’ If you put me in a room with this instrument, I just will become obsessed with it.”

“Connected by Love” (2018)
“The melody was coming straight from my gut,” White says of this woozy plea for forgiveness from a lover. He likes to carefully plot its place in the show: “I just have to find the right moment in the show to put that song. It has such a power to it now. It becomes so explosive that it’s hard to know where to put it. Sometimes you’re like, ‘It should be the last song of the night.'”

“I’m Slowly Turning Into You” (2007)
 “It’s so simple. There’s only two notes in the whole song. And it just goes to show there’s some natural things inside our heart that we respond to. I remember writing that on piano and it was really soulful and more elaborate, and it became a very direct two-note sort of song when we did Icky Thump. So it’s now become a live thing where live crowds really respond well. I don’t know why.”

Encore:

“Sixteen Saltines” (2012)
White likes to kick off his encores with this uptempo barnburner from Blunderbuss before moving into less familiar material. “It wouldn’t be a good idea to come out with a stranger song,” he says. “But if you do something like ‘Sixteen Saltines’ first, then you can sneak the medicine in the mashed potatoes and get people into a different mindset.”

“Ice Station Zebra” (2018)
White testifies about his artistic mission in this rap, preaching, “You create your own box, you don’t have to listen to any of the label makers, printing your obituary.” “It’s very difficult to play all the parts to it,” he says.

“We’re Going to Be Friends” (2001)
White has reworked this campfire singalong with “a lot of synthesizer stuff,” inspired by a toy-piano-like sound. “You have all these television commercials that have this annoying toy-piano thing – you know, with like, ‘Ask your doctor about Zyrtec.’ It’s in, like, 50 percent of commercials now. So I was trying to take how much that annoys me and make it beautiful. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do with this version with the synthesizers. When it starts off, I wanna start laughing, but I have to keep a straight face.”

“Lazaretto” (2014)
“That sort of fits in really strongly with a lot of the hip-hop vibes from the music that we’ve been playing,” says White, who wrote this song using the tempo of MC Lyte’s 1989 track “Cha Cha Cha,” which sent him down a rabbit hole analyzing classic hip-hop: “What’s funny about it is that if you use an 808 kick drum sample, you are in the key of F-sharp. And the song is in F-sharp. I didn’t really realize a lot of Eighties and Nineties hip-hop songs are in the key of F-sharp because of that kick drum.”

“There’s sort of this long line when we jump from song to song: It’ll be punk, then blues, then have a country feel and then have this hip-hop feel next.”

“Seven Nation Army” (2003)
“It feels kind of like you just have to play it at the end of the show,” he says of his biggest anthem. “I’ve done it all over the set, and it just has that sort of closing thing to it, especially when there’s an outdoor, festival vibe.” He doesn’t always play it – at a recent show at Brooklyn’s Warsaw, he left it out. “Sometimes I forget to do it. I haven’t preplanned anything. I’m waiting for the crowd to tell me what to do. So there’s definitely gonna be times where we could have played it. ‘Oh, man, we worked that up in soundcheck, and it went so well, and then I forgot to play it!” So that’s the downside of no set list.”

In This Article: Jack White

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