At this point, more than a dozen years since the White Stripes’ peppermint-swirled debut, Jack White’s resume could be pretty fairly described as “towering,” stacked with records, production credits, film roles and label proprietorship. He seems like such his own person, such his own kind of person. But while he’s at the center of all these projects, he’s concealed by them, too – masks behind masks and all that. It’s hard to get him alone, which explains the air of piqued excitement around his first solo album, Blunderbuss, to be released in April. He appeared at Track 29 in Chattanooga, Tennessee last night for his first-ever solo headlining show, kicking off a brief tour in support of the album.
Chattanooga snagging the show was a bit of a coup; a more venerable hall up in Nashville, White’s adopted hometown, would’ve been a far more obvious choice. Track 29, a low-slung concrete building plopped awkwardly behind the famous Chattanooga Choo-Choo (now a hotel and conference center), just opened last fall. In a previous life it housed an ice-skating rink, but now it’s leading the slow battle of drawing bands off the well-worn touring paths to Nashville and Atlanta. The show was announced in early February, and tickets sold out almost immediately. The day of the show, a line formed outside the venue as early as 5 a.m.; the doors opened at 8 p.m. but it took upwards of an hour to funnel the crowd inside.
All matters of local pride aside, mostly the excitement of seeing Jack White just boiled down to seeing Jack White, as if witnessing him perform under only the thin guise of his own name would somehow finally make everything clear. Of course, then he went and showed up with more bandmates than ever before: a six-piece, all women, one of them pregnant.
Earlier, openers Hell Beach had taken the stage in a haze of red-lit smoke and plodded through a checklist of contrived sexiness and aimless sludge, the trio led by a singer whose haircut did most of the heavy lifting. But after the break, the lights shifted to blue and the six women floated out onto the stage – almost mermaidishly, all of them in shades of silver – with White trailing behind. Their pedal steel, violin and organ were laid thick, sometimes overwhelimingly so, onto every song: a few from Blunderbuss, some from his Dead Weather and Raconteurs, and more than seemed prudent to hope for from his six White Stripes releases.
The same crew had accompanied his performance of “Love Interruption,” the album’s lead single, on SNL the previous Saturday, and had been traded in for an all-male band for the second song. But in Chattanooga, the only dudes on stage besides White were his roadies, backlit figures in sharp suits and fedoras. Ruby Amanfu, the Ghanian-born, Nashville-based singer who rasps so gloriously all over “Love Interruption,” plied the songs with harmonies and a fairly mad tambourine; Brooke Waggoner, a singer-songwriter in her own right, plugged away on keyboards, her piano occupying the fore of at least one of the new songs, a bombastic number with staccato vocals that found White shrugging off his acoustic for an electric guitar halfway in.
The set slid back and forth between grin-smearing group-sings and crunching, hair-flinging bombast. (White spent more time tending to his coif, mussing and scrunching the sweaty mess between songs, than did any of his female bandmates.) White Stripes songs were the unshocking favorites; there was a countrified “Hotel Yorba,” pedal steel and fiddle and all, and when “Seven Nation Army” closed down the main set, a sizable population of the crowd sang along not just to the lyrics but to White’s jerry-rigged acoustic riff as well.
Many already knew all the words to “Love Interruption,” but it’s hard to imagine any of the other new songs relating in the same way – much of the Blunderbuss stuff seems more in the vein of De Stijl, or of “Ball and Biscuit,” still one of the fiercest cuts in White’s catalog. Here it spooled into a blues mini-jam, with White screeling away and drummer Carla Azar, buttoned into a high-necked, long-sleeved lace dress, bent double and pounding like a madwoman to the last beat. (Here my notes read “Sorry Meg,” followed by a sloppily-rendered sadface.)
That could’ve sufficed as a closer, but White and the ladies shuffled instead into a generous coda of “Irene, Goodnight,” the night’s only cover, first recorded by Leadbelly, since played by almost anyone with an acoustic guitar and half a notion of American folk music, and almost never not lovely. He coaxed us into singing along, and by the third or fourth go-round of the chorus even the drunkest fool in the back knew the words, which we sang up to the stage and to ourselves like our own lullaby. And when the last chords fell there was a little bow and a toss of a pick and cheering as White saluted the crowd, the women all filing offstage ahead of him, and then he smiled and turned and walked away from us again.