Jack White knows how to sell a new album — even though only once during his pre-tour album-release gig Tuesday at L.A.’s Mayan Theatre did he refer directly to “Boarding House Reach,” his third full-length solo effort, which comes out Friday. White’s not one to indulge in “Here’s another new one” chitchat, even in premiering six songs from an unreleased album. But when he did finally get around to mentioning the imminent rollout, upon returning from the encore break, it was to place a sort of chain-letter-style hex on the audience: White relayed that he’d been told backstage that if everyone there did not buy the album and get seven of their friends to buy it, all their ancestors would suffer the consequences “for millions and millions of years.” (He did not elaborate on a streaming option to avoid such a fate.)
The threat of nearly eternal generational damnation may sound like a good reason to pick up “Boarding House Reach,” but White gave the crowd some even better ones, in the form of rousingly evangelistic performances that made the new material fit in surprisingly well with a healthy dollop of earlier material and White Stripes classics. The term “surprisingly “ applies because there’s a pretty wide disparity between the two-person minimalism of the older stuff and the new tunes’ multi-keyboard, synth- and programming-friendly approach. But the four players he’s bringing out with him this year managed to make the oldest and newest material feel of a piece, even if the “Reach” songs are comparatively pretty bonkers.
The Mayan show, an instant sellout upon being announced last week, is one of a handful White is doing a month out from the start of the real tour, which will take place in far bigger rooms and amphitheaters: Last week, he did three shows in the tiny performance space behind his record store in Nashville; White continues these smaller warm-up dates Friday in Brooklyn — which will be live-streamed on Twitter — and March 28 in London.) These are the first shows he’s done since his last tour wrapped two years ago, and a lot has changed. His familiar floppy bangs are back, and he’s dropped the fiddle and mandolin that were in his employ last time around in favor of Moogs, or at least Moog-adjacent sounds. He’s back in raging rock and roll mode, which isn’t at all compromised by the two full-time synth players; if anything, it’s just as if Stevie Wonder or Keith Emerson dropped by a Led Zeppelin session to add some random licks atop the riffing.
If for some reason you went into the show ignorant of the Stripes’ catalog, the easiest way to tell the difference between the old and new songs would have been to keep an eye on drummer Carla Azar and gage whether she was doing something complicated or… less so. (No offense, Meg.) Well, that and the fact that some of the fresh tunes have two- or three-part structures, which makes them sound a little tougher to digest than they actually are from pleasurable moment to moment. “Respect Commander” opened with Azar hitting electronic pads and establishing a loop, before the song went into frantic double-time, and then spooky half-time, and then relaxed blues-rock jam time, and back again… all as White did the kind of soloing that skirts the line between guitar virtuosity and a short-circuit.
Not many of the 1,700 attendees who’d beaten the odds to buy tickets took advantage of the stations that were set up in the lobby to preview the new album on headphones. So not many of them were able to make out White intoning the funniest or silliest line of his career – “What’s so funny about beasts above understanding?” (yes, some kind of spoof of the Elvis Costello/Nick Lowe maxim) – in “Why Walk a Dog,” a song that seems to take up the cause of, if I’m not mistaken, pets’ rights. The other new songs came through more clearly in concert, like an extended version of the single “Connected by Love” that had some added gospel piano and a cappella parts, or “Corporation,” a combination funk jam and recitation that had some added Trump-referencing freestyling.
White likes to play with the conventions of the rock show, starting with the stage patter. “City of Angels, how do you feel?” he asked, in traditional rabble-rousing fashion at one point. “Do you feel better than you did the day before? Do you feel better than you did five seconds ago? Then I’m doing my job.” Moments later, he proceeded to “apologize for the preceding statement,” allowing that maybe he’d overstepped his bounds in riling up the crowd and should let everyone decide individually whether to get excited.
Another wrinkle: the set of triplicate microphones White sang into, making it look as if he were addressing a press conference. This wasn’t just for show; it soon became evident that the middle mic was his clear channel, the one on his right was for distorted vocals, and the remaining microphone was for a variety of aural effects, though his high-pitched trademark howl didn’t require any filters.
And then there’s the fact that, when he’s away from all those microphones, he plays much of the show with his back to the audience. But he’s not pulling a Miles Davis; he’s getting face time and groove time with his band members. If you ever wondered about the artificiality of a rock band all facing toward the audience instead of each other like they would at a spirited rehearsal, well, White has apparently wondered that, too. It’s easy to understand why he wants to directly interface with these guys, and gal: They’re probably the all-around most effective touring ensemble he’s put together yet. A reading of the lovely title track of “Blunderbuss” from early in the decade provided a reminder of the musical elegance he briefly adopted, and is mostly sacrificing again now. But elegance, schmelegance: This crew rocks, and it’ll probably seem like as much of a thrill ride in the big sheds this summer as it did in a sweatier and more intimate venue at the close of spring.
One additional note: It was hard to escape the irony, probably unintentional, of White reviving the Stripes’ “Hello Operator” to an audience that had been forced to surrender their phones to locked pouches for the duration of the show. (And their smartwatches, too; forewarned is forearmed with manual timepieces.) But, even for those of us who feel that it’s a bit infantilizing to be forced to submit to the pouch patrol, it only takes about 16 seconds of “Sixteen Saltines” to surrender that anxiety. Plus, there’s nothing like an old-style unraked floor to make you happy for the absence of any bright screens further spoiling the sightlines. There are other performers whose confiscatory instincts you’ll resent in years to come, but not somebody as devoted to not phoning in a single moment as White is right now.