For all his talents, Jack White’s greatest gift is playing a rock star. When it comes to dominating a stage, he has few peers.
The 39-year-old Detroit native has been in several rock combos — most famously the White Stripes, also the Dead Weather and the Raconteurs — and overpowered them all. By now it’s clear that White could tour with an entire orchestra or a volcano and he’d still be the one thing on stage nobody could take their eyes off of. He showed up to Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday with a new haircut and wearing a dark-striped suit that oozed thrift-store cool. He also sported white leather shoes — the Labor Day rule was written for the likes of Jack White to flout.
He’s touring under his own name, backed by an attentive and hard-rocking quintet that looked to their charismatic bandleader for all cues on what songs to play and how to play them. Over an amazing, sweat-filled two-hour set, he covered all phases of his career, from the electric blues of the White Stripes to selections from “Lazaretto,” his solo record released this summer. He opened with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” a Stripes tune from 2001, a time when he was accompanied by just a drummer, Meg White. She added novelty and lots of mojo, but, musically speaking, Meg was a very replaceable cog, as his new drummer, Daru Jones, showed whenever Jack White dipped that far back into his catalogue. Jones pounded away with John Bonhamesque fervor and gave this tune a more Led Zeppelin-ish feel than the original version had.
During the extended jam “Top Yourself,” a tune from his days with indie supergroup the Raconteurs, White pointed to his bandmates one by one when it was time for their solos. Jones, who occasionally got so into the rocking spirit that he had to jump off his drum throne and keep the beat while standing up, used his moment in the spotlight to work over a cowbell, while multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin made sci-fi noises on the theremin, the oddest of all rock-and-roll implements. For the gear-heads, White had his usual assortment of vintage guitars and old amplifiers to play them through. His favored axe was a beat-up blue Fender Telecaster with a Bigsby tremolo, and the centerpiece of his current sound rig is a trio of mid-century RCA public-address amps that have been converted for guitar use, their vacuum tubes glowing inside cages. So cool.
The best of the new tunes, “High Ball Stepper,” had multi-instrumentalist Lillie Mae Rische squealing into the microphone and adding fiddle licks as White stalked the stage.
During one of the night’s few quiet interludes, White strapped on a beat-up old parlor guitar for a duet with Rische on “We’re Going to Be Friends,” a sweet folk song released during his Stripes days, a G-rated tale about a grade school romance.
As the best rock stars usually are, White was socially aloof, and on the rare occasion when he did speak to the crowd, the meaning wasn’t always clear. “I grew up right next to your mom’s house when she was little!” he yelled late in the show for no obvious reason. Whether it made sense or not, the fans roared.
He ended the night plucking out heavenly slide-guitar riffs on a primitive acoustic guitar on “Seven Nation Army,” a Stripes tune from 2003 that over time has gone from indie nugget to global stadium anthem. Given the size of his personality, the world should be his stage.
McKenna is a freelance writer.