Here I’ll give a quick shout-out to Curtis Harding. His set was short, but enjoyable. He started the evening’s music at 6:30 and was done by 7:05. He seemed to do a good job of captivating the crowd with his Lenny Kravitz-meets-Buddy Holly sound, and definitely consciously knew he was in the shadow of a much larger guitar phenom about to take the stage. Even so, he delivered a straight-shooting guitar rock that stood out and filled up the amphitheater well. Check him out.
About ten minutes before Jack and company took the stage, a man came out in all black, suspenders, fedora, and an electric blue bowtie to formally explain that “it looks like you’re all very relaxed tonight in your lawn chairs. I’m here to let you know that you won’t need them – this, after all, is a rock ‘n’ roll show, not a poetry reading” which received warm laughter and applause. He then made his humble request that since this is a live rock ‘n’ roll show, it is going to be best experienced live, and not through a 3” digital screen. That received less applause, and didn’t stop the guy in front of me from later taking a complete 360 degree shot of the stage and crowd (although the segment of his panorama which included me featured a very well-placed middle finger).
The emcee/stage manager then wished us well, said Jack would be up soon, and left the stage while the rest of the roadies (donned in similar attire but with electric blue straight ties in place of the bowtie-of-authority) finished setting up. Then the lights went down, the crowd fired up, the band took their positions and immediately starting pounding out a driving preamble, hinting at all the bombast and revolutionary things that were about to happen. The drums crashed and vamped, the bass churned, the fiddle squealed and the effects table crackled and spun space-age sounds.
At some point in the wondrous chaotic crescendo, Jack White appeared. I really can’t explain how, where or when – I was staring at the stage intently the whole time, only about ten positions back from center stage, and I cannot tell you where he came from. He just appeared from nowhere, and when he did, I found myself making involuntary exclamations along with the crowd: “oh! Whoa! Shit! What just happened!!” And screaming like crazy.
He wore black slacks, white boots, suspenders, a patterned blue button down and a black straight tie. He’d recently had a haircut, shorn very close to the sides and long hair on top slicked firmly back against his scalp instead of the usual wiry/crinkly black mane over his face. His sideburns were thick chops down to his jawline, and he wore circular reflective black sunglasses that made him look like a cross between an agent from the Matrix and Dr. Strangelove. It was thoroughly chilling, and thoroughly awesome. He made sure not to even crack a slight smirk. The show was on.
Jack strutted around the stage appropriately with his powder blue Telecaster, gesturing to his bandmates and acknowledging the crowd generally before launching into a thunderous rendition of “Icky Thump” – which slayed. As an opening song, it was intimidating, intense, and got people jumping. A few spots in front of me and to my right there were two mid-20s guys with big bushels of curly hair headbanging to their heart’s content in the breakdown riffs between the verses. I was thrashing around as much as I could. It was completely euphoric and incredible.
From there Jack did about a 20-minute run that included “Lazaretto,” “Astro” – a surprise from The White Stripes first record – and “High Ball Stepper” complete with the crowd filling in that “woo-oo-oop” sound. Throughout the run, he sung, but not as much as he soloed and experimented and let his band show off their chops. He even flubbed a line from his record-breaking album’s signature single, in the chorus. But he continued, nonplussed, and after finishing up the run said “Alright, Portland, I was just clearing my throat.”
Throughout the medley the main thing I couldn’t help but keep thinking was “what’s he going to do next??” He produced sounds with his guitar and effects pedals I’ve never heard before. He would go into totally different time signatures while his band waited with bated breath to see where he would end up, so they could join him for the final flourish. He was all over the stage, sometimes with his back arched and axe wielded high, sometimes hunched with his back to the crowed, and other times just jamming face to face with the bass player or sharing a mic with his fiddler.
After a run like that, everyone needs a breather, audience included. So Jack wisely strapped on an acoustic guitar and side-stepped into a more acoustic-flavored Americana-style set that started with a countrified version of “Hotel Yorba” – a highlight for both me and my wife – and then a couple of more mellow numbers from Lazaretto. His pedal steel player was spot on, clean and clear, and his fiddler provided both twangy alto harmonies and spooky sounds from what looked like a chrome-plated fiddle. (The upright bass also seemed to be plated with chrome, which reflected the baby blue stage lights exceptionally well.)
Then came a song I never expected to hear in a million years. He quipped “Here’s a song I co-wrote with Hank Williams, believe it or not, from the grave” and then did a pitch-perfect rendition of “You Know That I Know” from The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. You talk about obscure? This is it. Not even a B-side. It was one of the few moments of the show that made me actually say “wow” out loud and totally re-evaluate my already ridiculously high opinion of Jack White.
The band then brought the energy back up with “Cannon” from The White Stripes and the Raconteurs’ “Top Yourself.” “Entitlement,” (including a fun detour with “Mystery Train”) followed, and then the fun “You Don’t Know What Love Is, You Just Do As You’re Told.” After a gentle rendition of “Blunderbuss” in which the rock god actually revealed a smirk or two, the lights came down again while Jack, the upright bassist, fiddler, mandolinist, and pedal steel man moved over to one side of the stage, circled up, and began an acoustic number I definitely knew, but couldn’t put my finger on until Jack eased up to the microphone and softly sung “Fall is here / Hear the yell / Back to school / Ring the bell / Brand new shoes / Walking blues / Climb the fence / Books and pens / I can tell that we are gonna be friends.” My heart kind of melted and the lighters came out while grown women visibly swooned. It was another “wow” moment that I completely did not expect, and did not want to end – a beautiful gestalt experience.
Another ballad from Blunderbuss followed, and then a rollicking 15-minutes or so of “Steady As She Goes.” During this main set closer Jack came to the mic and talked about pop culture for “about 12 seconds” and then decided to finish the song and get off stage in hopes the media wouldn’t drop him into the category of “ranting” or “preaching” at the audience – which happens, he said, at about the 19 second and 26 second mark, respectively. (This was clever and sarcastic, and still couldn’t stop The Oregonian‘s David Greenwald from giving a positively unwelcome and ultimately mean-spirited review the next morning.)
So the band rocked out to “Steady” while Jack wailed on an over-the-head solo and then haphazardly left his baby blue Fender upside down at the front of the stage before walking off stage left. The guitar made a droning electronic buzz while the band-members dutifully filed away to be ceremoniously called back out by the crowd. The buzzing continued in the dark until someone from backstage finally shut off Jack’s amp, and hit the rest of the stage lights. We all knew they weren’t gone for good, that there was still more distortion and riffs and great displays of artistic prowess to come. I just couldn’t believe we were already to the end of the main set.