The former White Stripes frontman gradually finds his footing at sold-out Monday show
Jack White didn't shy from flaunting his distaste for modern technology at a sold-out Express Live outdoors on Monday.
It surfaced in everything from his lyrical asides — “Get on Instagram and get yourself some adulation,” he sneered in one ad lib on “Corporation,” a track off his prickly, bizarre new album, Boarding House Reach — to a tour policy that required concertgoers to secure electronic devices in Yondr pouches prior to entering the venue. In a pre-tour statement, White said he instituted the policy in the hopes of cultivating a “100 percent human experience” centered on music. Later, during a stampeding “Ball and Biscuit,” the raven-haired White even dropped lines about reading an actual newspaper — an old-timey admission if ever there was one — updating the lyrics to shout-out “The Columbus Post-Dispatch,” as he called it. And who needs access to a smartphone when you have print media, right?
Early on, White’s concert felt like an extension of the overthought, often overworked Boarding House. Aside from menacing opener “Over and Over and Over,” which built on a sinister, snaking guitar riff, songs tended to feel half-formed, coming across like a series of ideas in search of a center.
This included the puzzling “Corporation,” where White railed against the hollowness of modern life, sneering the “Who’s with me?” refrain like a guitar-toting Jerry Maguire, and “Why Walk a Dog?,” a meandering blues jam on which the notoriously strong-headed frontman appeared to set himself above critics. “So why does a dog need to listen/Whenever you shout?” he snapped. At times, these earlier numbers felt like a heavier-swinging extension of Spinal Tap’s jazz odyssey.
Gradually, however, the disjointed musical ideas started to coalesce, with White and his four-piece backing band finding steadier ground on tunes such as the piano-laden “Hypocritical Kiss” and the White Stripes’ shaggy, propulsive “My Doorbell,” where White’s braying voice beautifully mirrored frayed wire.
Between songs, White carried himself like part biblical soothsayer — “The sun is going to disappear in the middle of the set, I predict to you now,” he said early on — and part midway barker. He decreed Columbus would now be known as “Leif Erikson, Ohio” (a nod to the Norse explorer credited as the first European to “discover” North America) and told a winding tale about skipping school in his Detroit hometown to spend the day traversing Ohio from “Dayton to Akron.” He then launched into the similarly exploratory “Get in the Mind Shaft,” a bit of mystic, robotic funk where White, his voice digitized by a vocoder, came across like a wide-eyed, galaxy-trekking android.
These futuristic excursions were rare for White, a songwriter and guitarist heavily steeped in music tradition. One loose-limbed jam built around lyrics cribbed from Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” and White’s playing on heavier tunes such as the primal “Black Math” and “Ball and Biscuit,” on which the frontman alternated between drums and guitar, conjuring a pachyderm stomp on each, mirrored the howling blues-rock of early practitioners like Led Zeppelin. Indeed, the evening’s color scheme — the band was lit exclusively in blue light and White dressed pointedly in black and blue — appeared to take its cues from the frontman’s physical, oft-bruising playing style.
At times, White showed a knack for softer songs that offered a similar gut punch, twisting the knife on a slow-boiling “Love Interruption,” a haunting turn that fared far better than the wispy, lullaby-esque “Humoresque.” But more often than not the guitarist appeared content to hammer away, reworking the Raconteurs’ “Steady as She Goes” into a funk-rock flare-up and lowering a shoulder into the White Stripes' arena-sized “Seven Nation Army.”
“And I’m bleeding and I’m bleeding and I’m bleeding right before the Lord,” White sang. “All the words are going to bleed from me/And I will sing no more.”
On cue, the frontman then launched into a choked, squealing solo as his backing band curled around him like a fist, the volume somehow increasing even as White’s words gave way — a glorious, sure-footed close to a concert that opened on unsteady legs.