“What’s the trick,” Jack White asks, in one of his most-played recent songs, “in making my love stick?” That’s a good rhetorical question, to which anyone who’s seen him in concert lately can provide plenty of tangible answers — all of them there for the grasping during a breathtakingly good, long set Friday night at downtown L.A.’s intimate Belasco Theatre.
No one in rock ‘n’ roll puts on more consistently thrilling shows nowadays, and there’s probably a show-biz “trick” or two in that. The fact that he doesn’t start any concert with a fully plotted out setlist (as pointed out by his DJ/hype right before the band comes on each night) is like catnip in cultivating the affection of the contingent of fans that believes there’s latent value in each performance having its own personality. But the worst jam band in the world can mix it up every night without having much to show for spontaneity alone. It’s not purely unpredictability that can make a person want to pull up stakes and follow White around for a few shows (or at least just stream or download a bunch of them on Nugs.net). It’s in the moments you see him calling audibles with three of the better sidemen on the planet, and it’s definitely in his extended solos. But it’s also in his impromptu squeals — vocally or on the guitar — and in the way he dances backward in white bucks while peeling off something that could peel wallpaper. White has that Jimi Hendrix energy, but Hendrix as filtered through Memphis’ own brand of swagger. Because you’ve either got a little Elvis in you or you don’t.
What the audience was getting at the Belasco show — announced just barely a week ahead of time — amounted to a “friends and family” gig, with White actually invoking that phrase as the concert drew to an extended close. Naturally, he put in an addendum about how everyone there was F&F for the night, but it can put a little spring in a rocker’s step when the guest list is full of folks they actually know and want to impress. Friday’s show had Olivia Jean, who played on the first night of his “Supply Chain Issues” tour last April and married him that same evening, returning for opening duties for this, one of the tour’s postscript gigs. White did shout out some other names over the course of the set — one number was dedicated to “Lars and Jessica” (Ulrich, that is, presumably), and others name-checked as in the house included Tom Morello, Josh Homme, Jack Black, Conan O’Brien and two Cats — Cat Power and Doja Cat. It’s not like you’d ever get the impression White is holding back a little in Tulsa, but maybe it doesn’t hurt to have a side-stage contingent like that if you’re hoping to get a 55-minute encore. (“We were supposed to end about four songs ago,” he said about two-thirds of the way through what pretty much amounted to a second set.) Or maybe that longevity had just as much to do with end-of-marathon energy, as White’s schedule was due to finally go dark for a while, after Saturday’s iHeartRadio set at the Forum and two just-announced finale gigs at his own Blue Room club space in Nashville this week.
That it was mostly hardcore fans who landed the tickets for the Belasco show (a sign-up offer was put out to Third Man Vault members) was evident in the number of attendees carrying poster tubes, which were not provided at the merch stand. It’s the seriously faithful that know that, if you’re going to buy a limited-edition show screen print that’s going to sell out before the headline performance begins, and it’s an SRO show, you’ve got to bring your own tube. Speaking of YouTube, White was last seen headlining in L.A. proper last summer at the YouTube Theatre, which offered a nice combination of standing room in the front and seating in the back two-thirds. But it was nice to have him at the Belasco, an until recently mostly dormant old movies and playhouse that has recently been a nice hosting ground for rock shows, one that hasn’t had any character-sacrificing rehab work, and an especially nice addition to the city’s concert scene for those who prefer a sweatier, less spit-polished experience.
As has been typical with White shows on the tour, much of the opening stretch of songs came from his twin 2022 albums, with three of the first four from the gonzo “Fear of the Dawn” — interruped only by a promissory White Stripes song, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” — and then two more from the gentler “Enterting Heaven Alive,” in the closest thing the show had to an acoustic interlude. From there on out, it was mostly more familiar Stripes, Raconteurs and “Lazaretto”/”Blunderbuss” material, although this was enough of a hardcore-fan crowd that even a fresh oddity like “Hi De Ho,” with its Cab Calloway samples, seemed to produce almost as audible of an endorphin rush as a “Ball and Biscuit.”
Three songs into the nine-song encore, White appeared to be ready to start wrapping things up with what is always the longest song of any set if it gets included, “Steady, as She Goes,” which had him issuing the crowd-squatting-and-jumping commands he admitted borrowing from a band that had at least one member on hand, the Hives. But following that with the schoolyard whimsy of “We’re Going to Be Friends” indicated the encore itself was going to take on its own arc, as quickly proven by White next bringing up a somber “Entering Heaven Alive” country-doom-and-death ballad, “What’s Done Is Done,” singling out keyboard player Quincy McCrary for bring able to provide church-honed chops on vocals and piano. It wasn’t too long before White was interacting in a very different way with drummer Daru Jones, holding up a cymbal for the standing Jones to thrash — among others in his unusually spread-out kit — as the very rarely played “I Fought Piranhas” gave way to the almost always played (but not guaranteed) “Seven Nation Army.” The cliché would be to say that, two and a half hours in, White had left it all on the stage, except that he never really betrays any hint of exhaustibility on stage. He leaves the sense that he’s still got more in him, even after 23 almost entirely intense numbers.
By the counting of the shows commemorated at setlists.fm, the last nine months of touring have seen White and his phenomenal band (which also includes bassist Dominic John Davis) play more than 120 different songs over the course of just under 100 gigs. At least a third of those numbers were only performed once on the entire tour, and another dozen or so only played twice (like Friday’s “John the Revelator”). So it’s not just limited-edition posters or limited-edition colored vinyl — White treats live songs like collectors’ items, sometimes, too, even if there are no slicked-out Deadheads out there who could possibly attend and collect ‘em all.
The night after his Belasco show, White played a shorter, festival-style set over at the Forum for an iHeartRadio alternative-rock one-nighter, livestreamed on Veeps — and it seems fair to surmose that anyone who caught that set probably felt fairly sated, too, even at eight songs versus the preceding night’s 23. He doesn’t actually have to be a volume dealer to make you feel spent — although it doesn’t hurt. Some time over the holiday break White ditched his blue hair and went back to black, but there’s enough ferocity in even one of his modest sets to turn a guy or a gal grey.
That combination of deeply studied songcraft and seeming primal abandon is a good trick, if you can pull it off. Which no one else really can. It may be a foolish thing to say less than three weeks into January, but it’s hard to imagine L.A. will have seen a better rock ‘n’ roll show by the time we’re making 2023 lists and checking them twice in December.
Taking Me Back
Fear of the Dawn
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
A Tip From Me to You
Love Is Selfish
You Don’t Understand Me
John the Revelator
The White Raven
I’m Slowly Turning Into You
Ball and Biscuit
Fell in Love With a Girl
Steady, as She Goes
We’re Going to Be Friends
What’s Done is Done
What’s the Trick?
I Fought Piranhas
Seven Nation Army