When Jack White has performed in Los Angeles on past post-White Stripes tours, he’s often chosen venues that seem to fit his grand but down-and-dirty rock aesthetic: historic, stately and maybe dimly grungy places like the Shrine and Mayan. Take a look at the itinerary for his in-progress “Supply Chain Issues Tour,” though, and you’ll find that he’s favoring newer, shinier places. (An exception would be his appearance in April at Detroit’s storied Masonic Temple Theater, the opening night of his engagement, literally and figuratively.) So when he set shows for Tuesday and Wednesday of this week at L.A.’s spanking-new YouTube Theater, his most hardcore fans might have had a slight concern. Would the new hall’s sleek, ultra-modernistic contours and blatant branding harsh the vibe? Is a place so overwhelmingly white any place for dead leaves and dirty ground?
It’s hard to know whether White chose fresher venues for this tour because he’s decided he’s ready to enjoy a higher class of dressing room, or if it’s strictly happenstance/coincidence. But if there’s anything to the (admittedly remote) possibility that he’s playing right-off-the-assembly-line places like this or Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena because he has some kind of subliminal case to make — that he can make any venue feel as “classic” as he is — then, point proven and case ratified. It didn’t take long after the lights went down and the stage-side YouTube logos were obscured that you could imagine you were in… not so much the Mayan or Shrine as the Fillmore West. Or at least our imagined version of what it might have been like to see an fresh-feeling but classically lead-guitar-fueled show when T-rexes and Hendrixes still walked the earth.
The Third Man collector crowd arrived early at the first of the two YouTube shows Tuesday to have the best shot at the nightly limited-edition posters that become collectibles, and there was an almost audible “eh” when the poster art for this gig turned out to be an abstract representation of L.A.’s freeway system. No offense to the painter, but most Angelenos are going to balk at framing something for their walls that reminds them of all the rest of the hours of the week they spend on the 405. That missed merch opportunity was pretty much the end of any miscalculations for the night, as White led his three-piece band through an hour-and-45-minute set that felt just the right side side of exhaustive, or exhausting, leaving a sensation that nothing was not left out on the stage — even if set lists from other stops on the tour show performances that have gone on for a few songs longer than this one’s ample 21. There was no “Seven Nation Army” this particular night, to the consternation of a dude or two in the men’s room after, but to the aficionados who cherish the nature of that don’t actually involve a pre-conceived list, that was just one more sign that the maverick in charge is never phoning it in. And that, hey, maybe, with its more pronounced dynamics and build to a real climax, the Raconteurs song “Steady as She Goes” really is a better encore-closer, anyway. No?
The set was surprisingly strong on the new albums, or at least surprising to anyone who kept track on the tour’s opening night, when there were just two news songs (and one new marriage) total. That is indeed new albums, plural: the show included five songs from “Fear of the Dawn,” the all-heavy record that came out April 8, and two from its acoustically oriented twin, “Entering Heaven Alive,” that will follow on July 22. With phones tucked away in Yondr pouches, White’s fears may include the dawn but do not include the fresh track “A Tip From Me to You,” being performed for only the second time, being bootlegged online before a studio version is available. Hearing that latter number and “Love is Selfish” bolstered the two semi-acoustic sections of the set that also included lighter or rootsier perennials like “Hotel Yorba,” and teased just how strong a companion piece “Heaven” will be to “Dawn” two months hence (take it from us). But the real thrill of the night — and an early one — was the concentration of songs from “Fear of the Dawn,” as fun a pure-rock album as we’ve gotten from anyone in years. Even if the entire audience had not availed itself of the easy availability of those new stompers, their riff-heaviness did not require an extreme level of familiarity to be pulverizing… and without the sonic nuttiness that makes the studio versions into roller-coasters, they might’ve gone down a little easier on first listen here anyway, with White sticking to one guitar sound at a time per song.
Actually, there was no guitar sound for much of the opening number, the latest album’s “Taking Me Back,” as some sort of technical snafu left White unable to participate in the barrage of sound for the first couple of verses, even as a roadie worked away on trying to connect multiple guitars. (In keeping with the Third Man aesthetic, even White’s guitar tech looks like a character out of a movie, like a hippie gangster from “Performance” or something… his crew being probably the only one in the business prone to wearing vests and ties. So of course you want to see a little more of that guy.) Not one to be thrown for a loop by a forced moment of spontaneity in a performance, White moved over to the piano for the middle portion of the song — and fortunately, it just so happens that bassist Dominic John Davis and keyboardist Quincy McCrary are already filling “Taking Me Back” with some pretty fuzzy, guitar-like sounds as it is. Problems were resolved and White recovered a working guitar in time to provide the screaming solo that a Yamaha upright keyboard could not.
And from there, off to the races, on the site of the demolished Hollywood Park track. After three of the “Fear of the Dawn” treaders, White gave the oldies-expectant part of the crowd a promise that it would ultimately become a hits set with the tease of the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” then reverted back to “Fear” with “Hi-De-Ho.” That isn’t the song from the latest album you’d most expect to hear live, since it features a Q-Tip rap, but White faithfully ran the tape for that section — as close as a show of his is ever going to have to a click track — while the band delivered the funk of it live. And make no mistake, the biggest difference between White’s last couple of albums and his earlier ones, or certainly the Stripes period, is that the band does get the chance to swing a good amount, as well as deliver on the Zep. When you have a drummer as world-class as Daru Jones — a guy who switches from seated to standing positions so often, it’s like he’s embodying the audience’s own impulse to give standing ovations — you want to give him a pocket to lock into now and again, as well as to meaningfully thrash.
White, as always, was showman as well as technician, sometimes moving away from the mic to pump up the crowd with unheard exhortations whose lip-readings could only be guessed at, pacing the cage at stage front when he wasn’t stepping onto the other musicians’ risers. and contorting his body into a leaned-over position, as if to find some kind of physical manifestation of how distorted his solos are always just on the verge of becoming. Maybe only once or twice was there anything in the set that felt like a few bars of jazz fusion, but White’s lead guitar playing has that mixture of precision and the suggestion that anarchy is just a step away that much of the best jazz has. White’s performances and especially his solos offer a taste of metal without the cheese, jam-band-iness without the detritus of actual jamming, of garage-rock that deserves to be taking place in the garage of Carnegie Hall. And that’s before the folky sing-alongs.
We could use six or seven or a dozen Whites to help rescue rock from its doldrums, but it’s OK — it has to be — that we’ve got just one. Fifty years after Ten Years After, he’s a conduit back to how it must’ve felt to be part of a Woodstock and Bill Graham genre-mixing generation in which rock could hit as hard as it was ever going to and still feel smart, spontaneous and proficient as well as primal. If his callouts to the crowd have a little bit of carnival barker to them, if not tent evangelist, it’s merited — he’s out there putting on the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Show on earth.
As for the YouTube Theater, that merits its own review, maybe for another time. But some of the fans on hand felt themselves warming up to the venue, partly for how much it reminds them in size and scope of the old Universal Amphitheater, albeit with a much higher, detached balcony. One crucial difference between this and some other rock shows that have been seen there since its opening last year: the seats in front of the stage are removable, and a healthy GA crowd in front makes a big difference in the energy level when the thousands of fixed-seating patrons aren’t sure whether to sit or stand. At White’s show Tuesday, having that SRO crowd in front felt like the Universal Amphitheater if you took a chunk of the Hollywood Palladium and transplanted it right in front of the Universal crowd — a little bit of a best-of-both-worlds situation. Between that and the good/loud sound, we can put up with the cleanness.