There will never be a universal consensus on which Jack White project is the best.
The majority will always rush to champion the White Stripes as the artist’s peak achievement, and understandably so, but that doesn’t make his other endeavors consolation prizes. The Dead Weather is a ferocious dose of heavy blues rock, but there’s simply no escaping the fact that singer Alison Mosshart, not White, is the focal point of that band. As a solo artist, White has indulged his affinities for everything from folk to hip hop over the course of three hit-and-miss records.
What makes the Raconteurs the perfect vehicle for White’s talents is the ability of co-lead Brendan Benson to both compliment and restrain his counterpart. Though White does sing for the Dead Weather, the role is supplemental; with the Raconteurs, he is an integral component of a supremely entertaining quartet.
In addition to Benson’s skills as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, the band also features Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence of the Greenhornes on drums and bass respectively. Following the release of their debut album, Broken Boy Soldiers, in 2006, the band went on to put out a second record in 2008 before electing to go on hiatus.
Tuesday night at Oakland’s Fox Theatre, the foursome (plus touring musician Dean Fertita) returned to the Bay Area for their first concert following the release of the Raconteur’s latest album, Help Us Stranger. Released in June, the album is the first new release from the band in 11 years. Thankfully, it returns to the formula that made Soldiers (and to a lesser extent, 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely) work so well, balancing the more melodic tendencies of Benson with the piss and vinegar of White’s adroit guitar work.
When the two harmonize, as they did many times on the Fox stage over the course of a 16 song setlist, it’s really a perfect marriage of two voices.
Sometimes Benson and White speak through their instruments, and the subject of their discussion lies somewhere between the dusty winds between Americana melancholy and disaffected fuzz. Backed by the reliable play of Keeler and Lawrence, the two central figures behind the Raconteurs were able to carry on their conversation as it drifted from the forlorn balladry of “Many Shades of Black” to the dropkick immediacy of the sizzling “Help Me Stranger.”
Essentially, no one had their phones at this show. As previously noted, though some may find White’s policy contrarian or insincere, watching a concert without smartphones is a wonderful thing. There is still some piece of the puzzle left to be solved with regards to what someone who needs to check in on a babysitter or get an update on severely ill family member is supposed to do (not go to the show, I guess), but overall the idea is far less of a burden than some people make it out to be.
Thanks in part to the absence of glowing screens, all the focus was on the Raconteurs. They performed admirably, if not predictably. There were no covers or surprises, though such things should never be expected as a given. The fact of the matter is that for those who saw the Raconteurs back when they played the Fillmore, this was more of the same.
After such a lengthy wait, who really needs some complete reinvention? If a “shut up and play the hits” mentality suits the band’s interests, there’s no reason for fans to expect more. In that sense, nothing the Raconteurs did on Tuesday night felt especially revelatory or unique, but such efforts weren’t really necessary. You go to see the Raconteurs to revel in the absurdity of White’s fevered fretwork and to marvel at the sweetness of Benson’s voice.
Given White is a headline caliber artist, it’s plausible that the Raconteurs represent his best bet to play clubs—a venue type ideally suited for his brash and sweaty style of rock. Maybe that’s why he genuinely seems to be having so much fun up there, going back-to-back with Benson for blistering solos and boot-stomping bridges. The Raconteurs were built for a club atmosphere and they feast on it accordingly.
It’s an easy energy to tap into when you go to see them live. Thankfully, after over a decade away, it appears the band hasn’t lost the focus that united them in the first place. They play hard, they have fun, and they go home. If that doesn’t make the Raconteurs the best of Jack White’s projects, they’re at least one hell of a decent way to spend a Tuesday night.