Jack White Refuses to Phone It In

His “phone-free” concert at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Wednesday night was a callback to simpler times.

(David James Swanson)

Leave it Jack White to convince 8,500 San Franciscans to temporarily part with their most important accessory.

On Wednesday night, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was not awash in the feeble light of smartphones. Views were not blocked by the ubiquitous presence of tiny screens documenting the performance on stage. Instead, everyone in attendance to see vinyl record mogul and guitar god Jack White had a bulge in their pocket or purse — wherever they’d chosen to stash the Yondr pouch in which their devices were locked upon entry to the venue.

The concept of phone-free shows is rapidly coming into vogue, especially in the comedy circuit. Dave Chappelle was one of the first artists to work with brands like Yondr in an effort to prohibit those lucky enough to see him at the small Bay Area clubs he often frequents from recording his material. In Jack White’s case, the venue was far larger, which offered the opportunity for a logistics headache. However, the staff was efficient and there seemed to be little — if any — delay in getting inside.

It’s fascinating to attend a show where no one has their phone. Without the preferred option for killing time between the supporting act (an energetic set from Nashville’s Olivia Jean) and the headliner available, people did something truly unexpected: they talked to each other. Whether it was to compliment a fellow fan’s clever T-shirt, ask the time from someone wearing a watch, or just strike up idle chatter, the run-up to White’s set passed via the analog miracle of human conversation.

Then it was Jack White’s time to shine.

As an integral member of no less than four music acts (including his solo work and the now-defunct White Stripes), it’s always fun trying to guess what White will play. For this tour — launched in support of his third solo record, Boarding House Reach — White mostly followed the tried-and -rue formula of delving deep into his latest album. While songs like “Connected by Love” and “Respect Commander” showcased his boundless skills as a rock guitarist, it was clear that the audience was holding out for the classics.

Not one to disappoint, White obliged with White Stripes cuts like “Hotel Yorba,” “My Doorbell,” and “Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground.” While straightforward covers of the studio versions would have sufficed, White had other ideas. “Hotel Yorba” was expanded from its fairly twee, barebones original into a full-fledged anthem. Even when White took to a piano at the rear of the stage to plunk out the melody on “My Doorbell,” it was with a ferocity absent from the studio version.

(David James Swanson)

Perhaps these musical permutations can be attributed to the fact that, as the years progress, White has somewhat distanced himself from his role as one-half of a bluesy garage rock duo to recast himself as a lone wolf and apex predator of modern rock music. Still, echoes of what made the White Stripes such a colossal force in the early 2000s could be felt on Wednesday night — namely in the form of drummer Carla Azar. Make no mistake: Azar is a phenomenal drummer (best known as a member of the band Autolux) and any group would be lucky to have her helming their percussion. That said — and given the fact that the rest of White’s band was male—it felt relevant that the only female member of his group would occupy the position long held by White’s former bandmate (and ex-wife) Meg White.

At other moments, when the music was relegated solely to White’s guitar and vocals, it felt as though the clock had been turned back to those years when the White Stripes could fill a stadium with only the brash red of their clothing, the boom of Meg’s snare, and Jack’s calculated waves of distortion. Two of the evening’s best moments came when he dipped into his other bands, including a late-set rendition of the Dead Weather track “I Cut Like a Buffalo” and a blistering take on The Raconteurs’ first single, “Steady as She Goes.”

As White concluded the evening with the inevitable (but still potent) “Seven Nation Army,” it seemed that perhaps the crowd at Bill Graham had truly forgotten about the momentary amputation of their digital appendages. Soon enough, the pouches would be unlocked, leading to a flurry of ride-share requests, tardy social media takes, and a logjam of texts awaiting replies. But as White furiously attacked the solos of his most popular creation, there was no risk of distraction. All eyes were on White, a situation he has come to expect, and one that he’s most assuredly earned.

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