Stepping in for the canceled Morgan Wallen on “Saturday Night Live,” Jack White might have proved the most popularly satisfying musical pinch hitter since Aretha Franklin stepped in for Pavarotti on the Grammys 22 years ago. His power-trio double-header set was quickly applauded on social media as one of the most electrifying rock ‘n’ roll performances on the show in decades, and drew extra good will thanks to White using the moment to pay homage to another guitar hero, Eddie Van Halen.
It might have been coincidence that the show announced White would be filling in for Wallen (who was told not to report for work after flagrantly breaking COVID-19 distancing protocols) just a couple of days after Van Halen’s death. Whether purposeful or providential, White did offer a salute first by performing on a customized Eddie Van Halen guitar that he’s used in the past, then by offering a brief bit of EVH-style finger tapping at the beginning of his solo in “Lazaretto” before moving back into his own trademark wailing.
White had taken to Instagram earlier Saturday to say he would be paying homage in his fashion while not actually covering Van Halen. “I thought it could be a nice gesture for me to use this blue Eddie Van Halen model guitar for one of the songs tonight on SNL,” he wrote. “The guitar was designed by Eddie (with a few customizations I had added). Eddie was very kind to me and saw to it that this guitar was made for me to my specs. I won’t even insult the man’s talent by trying to play one of his songs tonight. Thanks again Eddie for this guitar and rest in peace sir.” (White being White, of course, he managed to find a smashing blue plaid suit to complement the instrument’s color.)
The guitar wasn’t the only thing that was customized. So was White’s opening medley, which included some lyrics rewritten for the quarantine era. Although they might have sounded written for the occasion, the rocker was actually covering Blind Willie Johnson’s 1920s song “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” written with numerous references to the 1918 pandemic, sandwiched between an opening snippet of his Beyonce/”Lemonade” collaboration “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the White Stripes’ “Ball and Biscuit.”
“Great disease was mighty and people were sick everywhere / It was an epidemic and it traveled though the air,” White sang, borrowing from the bluesman Johnson in his first appearance. He reiterated vintage Blind Willie lines about public schools closing as a result of the Spanish flu. But “Just tell everybody in the place to get out and we’ll be clean together” — that’s from the 2003 “Ball and Biscuit,” with some new meaning in the quarantine age.
Eddie Van Halen was not the only late musical hero to receive a salute in White’s appearance. His intermittent bass player of many years, Dominic John Davis, wore a T-shirt bearing the word “PRINE” in honor of singer-songwriter John Prine, who would have been celebrating his 74th birthday Saturday night if he had not been tragically felled by COVID-19 this spring. (Some casual viewers might have believed it was a Prince T-shirt until Davis removed his guitar strap at the end.)
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i thought it could be a nice gesture for me to use this blue eddie van halen model guitar for one of the songs tonight on SNL. the guitar was designed by eddie (with a few customizations i had added). eddie was very kind to me and saw to it that this guitar was made for me to my specs. i wont even insult the man’s talent by trying to play one of his songs tonight. thanks again eddie for this guitar and rest in peace sir.
The biggest burning question for some viewers: What was up with Daru Jones’ drum kit, besides the fact that he was able to make it explode for minutes at a time? The drums in Jones’ kit were slanted away from him, although well within his reach due to the height of his drum stool or his eventual standing, a compelling visual that made it seem as if the fellow veteran of White’s bands might actually be playing the drums in a backwards “Tenet” universe.
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+🥁+ The Big Boys! So excited to see these @dwdrums tubs again. The last time I saw and rocked them were on the #laztour @coachella 2015. Catch them on @nbcsnl tonight with the rock boss @officialjackwhitelive #jackwhite #dominicdavis #darujones #rusicrecords #thirdmanrecords
Jack. White. 🔥
— olivia wilde (@oliviawilde) October 11, 2020