It didn’t feel like a Wednesday night in Columbia.
The presence of rock superstar Jack White alone was enough to make things feel unusual, but you also had excellent competing shows at the Music Farm Columbia, Tin Roof, Foxfield Bar & Grille, and New Brookland Tavern. An embarrassment of riches for what is ordinarily considered an off music night in this town.
Alas, I was one of a few thousand who packed the sold-out Township Auditorium for a show that was practically championed as the show of the year before it even happened. Such is White’s reputation as a live performer, as well as his stature in the rock world.
Opener Olivia Jean kicked things off with a set that seemed straight out of the headliner’s playbook, blending a bit of high country twang and rock and roll boogie into a garage band setting. And while her more-than-capable backing band followed her down every turn, a muddled sound mix left most of the words lost in the shuffle for an audience unfamiliar with her material. Given that her new LP is due out on White’s Third Man Records soon, I might look back more kindly on this set in retrospect when I have a stronger sense of the songs. As it is, though, it felt like a band gliding on the personality and character of its frontwoman, and also like a collection of musicians who would make a damn fine Jack White cover band.
White of course is known for his love of quirks, antics, and gimmicks as much as he is for blazing hot garage-blues guitar work and Zeppelin-esque grooves. The show’s set made much of a specially-assembled blue curtain, old school television, and other vintage equipment set center stage. The color blue and the number three were the main motifs (White’s in his “blue” stage now, and the number is likely a reference to his record label), but mostly the stage menagerie blended into the background.
Because Jack White takes this s*** seriously. Backed by a five piece band hell bent on following their notoriously impulsive leader through the paces, White proved his live wire reputation by sliding in and out of songs in chaotic bursts of frenzied guitar work and only occasionally signaling to his band what he was doing. As has been his pattern of late, the show mixed songs from his two solo efforts with a fair smattering of White Stripes tunes, the odd cover or two, and some choice cuts from his work in The Raconteurs and Dead Weather, but it rarely seemed to matter to the audience, who were eating out of the palm of his hand.
While I can’t say I was entranced as the rest of the crowd—the quality of White’s singing in particular, which is easily the weakest of his considerable skills, varied over the course of the evening, and, as with the Stripes, the energy and bluster of the sound occasionally belied less-than-engaging material—it’s undeniable how spellbinding White is as a performer. Personal highlights included his blistering transformation of the Stripes tune “Little Room” into rock therapy writ large, the masterful rendition of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” and the faithful, elegantly wrought take on the acoustic “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket.”
White’s band is also part of what makes these shows so good too—drummer Daru Jones, positioned stage right, embraced the physicality of Meg White’s drumming and demonstrated flagless energy, showmanship, and just the right level of chops for White’s material, and the interplay between Fats Kaplin on violin and Lillie Mae Rische on fiddle was as surprising as it was spectacular. And the entire ensemble was adept at capturing the luxurious interplay found on White’s solo efforts—opener “High Ball Stepper” and “Three Women” off Lazaretto as well as Blunderbuss’s “Missing Pieces” all showcased the dynamic chemistry of the group.
Fitting for a rock show of such proportions, most audience members left the show with their ears ringing and their throats sore, as White took arguably his two biggest hits—“Steady As She Goes” and “Seven Nation Army”—out for the full rock star spin, coaxing the audience to sing along and building each to a fury that transcended their recorded incarnations.
As I was leaving the auditorium, basking in the warm ear-ringing of rock and roll excess, I heard a number of still-dumbstruck audience members still sing-shouting the riff from “Army.” It seemed appropriate, as White’s signature tune has become nothing more than a clarion call for the survival of rock and roll.
Last night, at least, that call was answered.