Jack White Unleashes Blazing, Unpredictable Set at Bill Graham

“Are you all ready for a rock ‘n’ roll show?” asked a member of Jack White’s fedora-and-suit sporting road crew before the main event began Friday night at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. After responding with an enthusiastic roar, the audience was politely but firmly asked to keep cell phones put away and experience the moment rather than trying to capture blurry digital memories with their handheld devices. If White’s fiery, freewheeling performance proved anything, it was the guitarist’s whole-hearted commitment to living in the here and now.

[jump] While not completely sold out, the crowd at the Civic was already stretching towards the back of the main floor and growing as opening act Curtis Harding worked his way through a set of garage-tinged, psychedelic soul. Nestled comfortably between full-on Hendrix fuzz and the more laid-back sounds of Curtis Mayfield and early Bill Withers, Harding led his band through songs from his recent Burger Records debut, Soul Power. After closing with the tambourine-shaking groove of “Keep On Shining,” Harding gave way to a string of somewhat incongruous but crowd-pleasing hip-hop classics (KRS-One, Gang Starr, and EPMD) thumping over the sound system to pump up the already boisterous fans.

When the nattily attired White (replete with greased-back Elvis pompadour and chops) took the stage with his ferociously talented backing band shortly after 9 p.m., they wasted no time. Plowing straight into a blisteringly loud and frenetic take on the White Stripes’ breakout hit “Fell In Love With a Girl,” White yelped and howled his way through the song when he wasn’t motioning for the audience to join in and scream out the tune’s familiar verse-ending lines.

The group followed with the rollicking new tune, “Just One Drink,” as White leaned in close (as he often would throughout the evening) to harmonize with singer/violinist Lillie Mae Risch. Though she served as his main vocal and melodic foil during the show, White keyed in on drummer Daru Jones even more closely. Midway through the White Stripes favorite “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” the band leader shouted “Let’s speed it up!” over his shoulder to Jones mid-verse and the drummer instantly ratcheted up the tempo from the original’s bluesy swagger. When White unleashed one of his many torrid guitar solos, he was frequently standing toe-to-toe with – and a couple of times on top of – Jones’ kick drum.

With the set list leaning heavily on material from the White Stripes, the maestro and his band seemed to relish tweaking those familiar songs into new territory. “Hotel Yoruba” got a raucous Grand Ol’ Opry spin as Risch’s fiddle intertwined with multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin’s soaring pedal steel, while “Cannon” took on a slower, Sabbath-like stomp that gave the tune a lumbering menace. Beloved solo acoustic track “We’re Going to be Friends” got one of the bigger transformations as a country-rock sing-along that had the much of the audience serving as boozy choir.

Though only a pair of songs by the Raconteurs and no material from the Dead Weather would make it into the show Friday, White kept up his tradition of covering other artists with a sweet version of the lost Hank Williams cut “You Know That I Know” and a faithful reading of the Albert King blues standard “Born Under a Bad Sign.” A positively corrosive “Ball and Biscuit” closed the main set with some of White’s most frenzied soloing of the night as the guitarist alternately leapt from monitors and writhed on the ground, setting the tone for the extended encore jams that followed.

Returning to the stage after a brief break, the band ripped through the instrumental “High Ball Stepper,” drawing the curtain down for a strobe-filled drum solo by Jones heavily fueled by former Mars Volta keyboardist Ikey Owens’ organ and synth freakout. It was during the driving, funky fury of the title track to White’s latest effort Lazaretto that a striking parallel to another iconoclastic artist came to mind. Given his gift for picking talented collaborators, startling skill as a multi-instrumentalist, love for unfettered live improvisation, and covering other musicians, White just might be the closest thing this side of Beck that alternative rock has ever had to the genius of Prince.

Another rowdy sing-along, this time to the Raconteurs hit “Steady As She Goes,” led into White’s “Sixteen Saltines” that suddenly (almost as if by cue) veered into a fuzzed-out version of “Devil’s Haircut” by Beck himself. The only arguably predictable moment of the evening came when White closed the proceedings with his biggest hit and adopted sports stadium anthem “Seven Nation Army.” Indulging in a call-and-response routine that had the crowd singing the song’s signature descending riff back at the guitarist, White and company offered their fans a last blast of noise before sending them into the night with their ears ringing.

Fell in Love With a Girl (White Stripes)
Just One Drink
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground (White Stripes)
Temporary Ground
Love Interruption
Hotel Yorba (White Stripes)
Cannon/Little Room (White Stripes)
Missing Pieces
Top Yourself (Raconteurs)
We're Going to Be Friends (White Stripes)
You Know That I Know (Hank Williams cover)
Three Women
Apple Blossom (White Stripes)
Hypocritical Kiss
I'm Slowly Turning Into You (White Stripes)
Born Under a Bad Sign (Albert King cover)
Screwdriver (White Stripes)
Ball and Biscuit (White Stripes)

High Ball Stepper
Steady, As She Goes (Raconteurs)
Sixteen Saltines/Devil's Haircut (Beck cover)
Death Letter (Son House cover)
Seven Nation Army (White Stripes)

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