The Raconteurs @ The Wiltern, July 20

raconteurs wilternI went to this show innocent as a babe, meaning I had not even heard the album before I went. (You may now decide to distrust this author completely) Like many, I was wondering if these three guys were just going to be acting as Jack White’s back-up band. In fact, I was charmed to see a true partnership, though it’s easy to pick out the separate contributions of Jack and his friend Brendan Benson to what is clearly a stir fry, not a melting pot. (By the way, Mr. Benson really needs to follow Jack’s example here–marry somebody and get a proper rock-n-roll handle) But these two support one another’s compositions and performances with equal gusto. I loved hearing Jack in a supporting role: very engaging call-and-response routine between him and Brendan (smooth call, screechy response). Brendan is clearly the straight man to Jack’s wailing fool. When they were in singer and lead guitar mode, they were sometimes channeling Page and Plant, but once or twice I was picking up Coverdale and Vai (yes, his guitar could really talk).

They opened with a moody version of “Level,” which I think is the best song on the album. It has a creepy, psychedelic keyboard arpeggio behind a bluesy, “Dazed and Confused”-type theme. Overall, it was the wide range of moods in the music that impressed me most, even if everything sounds like the late ’60’s. They call up contemplative, Indian-infused Beatles here, playful Dylan satire there, folksy-dreamy Byrds lyricism further on. And they deliver what Jack White does best: love songs which are just as heavy but more eccentric and witty than Zeppelin’s. They know how to cast a spell over an audience without unleashing savage teenage hysteria (which I can’t say of–of all people–Al Green, who I just saw the other night at the Hollywood Bowl). They paid tribute to Nancy Sinatra in a cute, deadpan version of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” but maybe that was just a belated tie-in to Kill Bill. New material included something like “Headin’ for the Texas Border”–catchy but a long way from “Hey Joe.”

This was the kind of exclamation I overheard on the way out: “My Jack White obsession was on hiatus for a while, but now it’s back with a passion.” How did a pasty-faced, Trench-Coat-Mafia-lookin’ guy become a veritable Lord Baal in the pantheon of rock idols? I have to say I’ve been weirded out more than once at White Stripes shows, hearing that sophisticated, road-burned whine coming out of an awkward, lanky boy with hair in his face, seemingly the victim of severe social anxiety disorder. It’s like watching a really good ventriloquism act–there’s complete voice-body dissonance. But I suppose Jack White has managed to sell a whole new generation on rock theatrics. Happily, his increasingly cartoonish White Stripes persona (dandy-vamp impresario? With dangerous shades of Dave Navarro?) has dissolved away in this new idiom. In the end, I’m content to see a man who projects himself as an autistic savant become the rock spokesperson and sex symbol of the ’00’s.

On that note, my brother, who saw the White Stripes at Spaceland probably before this century began, has a question for Jack: what happened to that number about “all the Dee-troit girls love Jack White”?