He kicked off the release with a live performance on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon," graced the cover of Rolling Stone (which has him ranked at 17 on its famous list of "The 100 Greatest Guitarists") and has logged appearances at major summer music festivals including Bonnaroo, Roskilde, Glastonbury and Forecastle.
For many St. Louis fans, myself included, his tour stop at the Fabulous Fox Theater Sunday night was the most highly anticipated concert of the summer. With all that build-up, the question remained -- would the sold-out show live up to the hype? The short answer: yes, oh yes.
Before we get to that, however, I want to mention opener Benjamin Booker, a young and clearly White-inspired blues guitarist from New Orleans on the verge of releasing his debut album. Booker held his own, keeping the growing and eager crowd at the Fox engaged with his intriguing blend of raw garage-rock and classic blues, alternating between soft, sultry vocals and full-on punk screams. Accompanying Booker were a bassist and drummer, and all three looked like they may have just graduated from high school. With a twinge of adorable nervousness in his voice, Booker allowed himself to glance out and take in the audience between songs, noting, "We've just been playing small clubs, so this is, uh, different." Keep an eye on this one because he seems poised to do big things.
Shortly after 9 p.m. an emcee stepped out to ask a kind favor on behalf of the band and White himself. Holding up an iPhone and pointing to its screen, he said, "The show is actually not just this wide." He then gestured to the stage, saying, "It's really this wide." He asked that there be no photography or video taken of the show so as not to distract from the experience, explaining that the band had a professional who would photograph the show and make the pictures available for free download on White's website after. It was a welcome announcement in an age where one's view of most concerts is filtered through hundreds of tiny screens thrust in the air.
Next, two heavily bearded members of White's crew (dressed in black with white ties) drew open the curtains to reveal the stage, awash in pale blue light, and suddenly there was White, looking sharp in tight silver sharkskin pants, black suspenders and shirt and a white tie, wasting no time tearing into the opening riffs of instrumental "High Ball Stepper." From the moment he took the stage to the moment he left it nearly two hours later, White drew the audience into his incredible musical world with the force of a hurricane that never lost speed.
It's one thing to recognize White's place as one of the most prolific songwriters and most badass guitarists playing today; yet it's quite another to experience that badassness (yeah, I just made that word up) live from the 10th row of the near acoustically perfect Fox Theater. "Genius" is a word that gets loosely tossed around a lot, but it's the first word that comes to mind when bearing witness to White's skills on the guitar and searing vocals (not to mention the moments when he simultaneously played guitar, piano and sang).
Rounding out his high-energy display of raw talent was White's stellar band, including members of his 2012 touring band the Buzzards, drummer Daru Jones, keyboardist Ikey Owens, bassist Dominic Davis (alternating between electric and a stunning, mirrored stand-up) and pedal steel guitarist/mandolin player Fats Kaplin; as well as violinist/vocalist Lillie Mae Rische from White's all-female touring band, the Peacocks.
Unlike typical band formations, White kept drummer Jones up front just to his right on full display, an appreciated move as watching Jones enthusiastically nail every beat from White's solo material to White Stripes classics was a pure delight. Rische, flanking White on the other side, added perfect harmony to the vocals and her violin provided dimension, accompanying White's guitar well while not overshadowing it.
Watching White shred a solo is something akin to watching a mad scientist in his lab, wielding a guitar and amp instead of a test tube and Bunsen burner. In either case, there's going to be an explosion. It's difficult to tell how much of it is tightly rehearsed and how much of it just flows from his fingertips in the moment.
Album title track "Lazaretto" wowed with both Rische and Kaplin playing dual violins and Jones working up the infectious beat as the crowd (entirely on their feet for most of the show) bounced happily along. White focused heavily on tunes from the new album including melodic "Temporary Ground," which highlighted Rische's vocals and Kaplin's pedal steel, while White toned things down on acoustic guitar; foot-stomper "Just One Drink;" and piano-driven "Alone in My Home," among others.
He also obliged a number of tunes from the critically acclaimed "Blunderbuss," including its title track, as well as "Love Interruption," "Freedom at 21," "Missing Pieces," "Hypocritical Kiss," and "Take Me With You When You Go," with White seated at the piano, his vocal a soulful melancholy wail.
Fans of White's early work in the White Stripes were treated to a smattering of songs spanning the band's albums including heavy "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground;" country-inspired "Hotel Yorba;" "Hello Operator;" and mid-set slaying trio of "Screwdriver," "I Fought Piranhas," and "Cannon," all from The White Stripes' self-titled 1999 debut, with White offering up a series of face-melting solos.
Lengthy set-ender "Seven Nation Army" was made even sweeter with a tease of Snoop Dogg classic "Gin and Juice" stuck in the middle (the night before in Louisville, White teased Jay-Z's "99 Problems"). About the only mellow moment in the entire show was a sweet version of childhood ode "We're Going to Be Friends," with White on acoustic guitar.
Throughout the show, White spoke animatedly, sharing thoughts and anecdotes. He mentioned the beauty and history of the venue, saying that as a teenager, he had worked in the identical Fox Theater in Detroit. He also gave a shout-out to the city of St. Louis, noting, "I walked around your city a lot today and gave your city as much money as I could." He said that he could see "that shiny Arch thing" from his hotel room as he awoke that morning, joking, "That thing is really bright! It's too shiny, you guys need to buff that shit." He even made mention of the City of St. Louis flag, saying that someone had given him one when he was younger that used to hang on his bedroom wall. As if his musical efforts weren't enough, the banter served to further endear White to his audience.
Following the packed main set, White and his band left for a short intermission, then returned for a rocking four-song encore bookended with White Stripes classic "Fell in Love With a Girl" and closer "Would You Fight for My Love?" before graciously thanking the audience and taking his final bow with the band.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to see this sold-out show and, for my first time, experience the force and presence that White is live. To say it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. I was simply blown away. White can often come across as cocky in interviews (including the aforementioned Rolling Stone cover story in which he devotes quite a bit of time to slamming The Black Keys for essentially copying him); and yet seeing him command the stage, it appears that he has earned the right to be, at least a little bit. To watch White perform is to marvel at everything he's doing while simultaneously anticipating and wondering just what he'll do next.
Setlist (courtesy of Setlist FM)
High Ball Stepper
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
Alone in My Home
Just One Drink
I Fought Piranhas
You Know That I Know
I Cut Like a Buffalo
Take Me With You When You Go
We're Going to Be Friends
Seven Nation Army
Fell in Love With a Girl
Freedom at 21
Would You Fight for My Love?