Review: Jack White magnetic at the Mayan
This post has been updated. See below for details.
By the end of Jack White’s concert at the Mayan on Monday, the Detroit-born, Nashville-based singer and guitarist had the sold-out crowd doing something that jaded baby boomers and skeptical folkie grandpas might never have imagined: Their kids and grandkids were giddily singing along to Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter’s version of “Goodnight, Irene,” a song at least a century old about basic human desire -- and certainly not trending on Twitter.
Touring in support of his new killer record, “Blunderbuss,” the lanky, pale singer and guitarist, wearing black and surrounded by his all-female band the Peacocks (who were all dressed in white), tossed out riffs suggestive of everyone from Chuck Berry, Hubert Sumlin and Keith Richards to Jimmy Page, Johnny Thunders and Joe Strummer, rolled out yarns worthy of Bob Dylan, and conjured the spirit of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys by giving each of his six-member band a solo.
It was as if he’d gathered inside his head many different strains, accents and ideas of pre-digital American music -- country, folk, blues, soul, rock 'n' roll and every combination thereof -- and was pouring them out through his fretboard-busy fingers and wailing voice.
As much as any American musician under 40, White understands the vast well of music that gave birth to his sound, and acknowledges those antecedents in some manner with every lick and lyric. He's also not afraid to let images do the talking: While lesser writers mourn the end of an affair with obviousness -- some variation on sad, mad and glad -- White simply looks down and sees dead leaves and dirty ground, and in the vision you understand his mind-state.
It was a history lesson amplified and bejeez-ified, with White’s killer riffs rolling out of perfectly toned electric and acoustic guitars, played by a man who, though only 36, has already created a body of work worthy of overview -- which is exactly what he gave us.
For the most part, White has deliberately and admirably kept his distinct musical projects separate. Seldom (if ever?) during sets by his bands the White Stripes, the Raconteurs or Dead Weather has he mixed in songs from the others. But performing as Jack White with the Peacocks (featuring drums, pedal steel, bass, violin, keyboards, backing vocals), he’s given himself the freedom to dip from his entire repertoire -- a word that feels funny uttering about someone so young and with a lifetime of music ahead of him, but is nonetheless accurate -- to illustrate the scope of his work. (Except for a version of "Blue Blood Blues," he stayed away from Dead Weather cuts, as he doesn’t sing on many of them.)
He and the Peacocks strutted out White Stripes songs from across his now-defunct duo’s albums, starting with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” from the band’s breakout album, “White Blood Cells.” From “Elephant,” White offered the anthemic love song “Seven Nation Army.” And the sing-along classic “Hotel Yorba” filled the Mayan with 1,500 voices in harmony. These once sparse songs, on record accompanied only by drummer Meg White, were offered up thick and beefy at the Mayan, allowing for instrumental meanderings that illustrated the songs' generous structures.
From White’s hard-rock band the Raconteurs, he did the twangy “Top Yourself” and “Carolina Drama,” and illustrated the ways in which he presents blue collar, beer-drinking shout-along rockers while peppering them with witty and literary lyrics.
Most of the set list, however, was dedicated to music from White’s new solo album, “Blunderbuss,” as impressive and magnetic a record as he’s ever made. He played much of it, and in doing so illustrated the sweat-stained work ethic and gloriously rich aesthetic behind these songs. “Weep Themselves to Sleep” was particularly huge, and showed not only White’s ability to write a righteous rock song but also his knack for building a killer band. Drummer Carla Azar and keyboard player Brooke Waggoner were particularly magnetic, and pedal steel player Maggie Bjorkland offered chrome-toned runs that recalled 1950s Nashville country.
For the weepy ballad “Blunderbuss,” White’s voice softened, his high-pitched whine brought down to a whisper, as he strummed his acoustic guitar and conveyed the story of a Parisian tryst. Featuring some of the best lyrics he's ever written, the song starts in a public space with a would-be lover, who grabs his arm and drags him through "a corner exit not tall enough to walk out standing straight" and into a crowd.
Over the course of four glorious verses, White tells the story, and near the end wonders on those who would judge the pair. "So selfish them, would be their cry/And who’d be brave to argue?" he sings before offering a lesson that's served him well throughout his artistic life: "Doin' what you people need/Is never on the menu."
Set list: "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" (White Stripes). "Missing Pieces." "Sixteen Saltines." "Hotel Yorba" (White Stripes). "Top Yourself" (Raconteurs). "Love Interruption." "Weep Themselves to Sleep." "I’m Slowly Turning Into You" (White Stripes). "Blunderbuss." "We’re Going to Be Friends" (White Stripes). "Take Me With You When You Go." "Ball and Biscuit" (White Stripes) Encore: "Freedom at 21." "My Doorbell" (White Stripes). "You Know That I Know." "Two Against One" (Dangermouse, Daniele Luppi and Jack White). "Carolina Drama" (Raconteurs). "Seven Nation Army" (White Stripes). "Goodnight Irene" (Leadbelly).
Update, 2:45 p.m.: The original version of this post said that White didn't perform any Dead Weather cuts because he doesn't sing on any of them. He did, in fact, perform "Blue Blood Blues," which he sang both live and on record. It has been corrected above.
-- Randall Roberts @liledit
Photos: Jack White performs with his backing band the Peacocks at the Mayan in downtown Los Angeles on April 30, 2012. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times