September 19, 2011

Jack White's Ego, live and in person

Whatever assumptions you've made about this post based on the title, just go ahead and discard 'em now.  This will be a bit of a ramble, so please bear with me...

I saw Jack White last week. For those of you who don't know, the Raconteurs have reformed for a scant half-dozen shows this fall.  I bought tickets for two shows immediately when they went on sale, then agonized and changed my mind and agonized some more before dropping a silly amount of money on eBay for a ticket to a third-- at Jack's 'house', Third Man Records.  There was just no passing up the opportunity to see this band, one that I wasn't sure I'd ever see, at that location.  The place is too special. 

So last Wednesday I hopped a plane to Nashville and, upon arrival, headed straight downtown to line up outside TMR with a bunch of fellow fans. My timing turned out to be perfect, as I was close enough to the front of the line to end up at the edge of the stage in the same spot I had for each of the Dead Weather shows I saw last year-- right next to Jack's pedal board.  So close, in fact, that I had paranoid visions of knocking a cable loose and creating technical difficulties for him.  This didn't come to pass, fortunately, and paranoia ended up eclipsed by bliss.  

Here's where you need to begin bearing with me as I ramble--  Of the famed trio of bands in which Jack's been involved, I have to say that the White Stripes are far and away my favorite.  That's due in large part to the immensity of their catalog compared to the other two, but also to the mesmerizing interaction between Jack and Meg.  But my chance to see the Stripes live was lost before I ever had it and has to be fulfilled through a blessed bounty of recorded performances.  The third of the tripartite, the Dead Weather, was my introduction to Jack live, with four shows spread over the spring and summer of last year.  Each show was an incredible kick of adrenaline, but that rush was somewhat tempered by the fact that Jack was not the frontperson of the band.  So that left the Racs as the band that I've felt a compelling urge to experience, in order to see him up front, at a mic, with a guitar, for the duration of a show.  Imagine my thrill when this fall's shows were announced.

But there's another thing about the Raconteurs. It struck me at some point last year, while I was immersing myself in and digesting Jack's catalog, that this triad of bands is very loosely reflective of Sigmund Freud's concept of the Id, Ego, and Superego... 

The White Stripes may have been portrayed with a child-like element, but there was nothing childish about the way Jack approached the band.  Articles and interviews during the ten years they performed are full of references to the "box" he constrained himself within when writing their music, to his and Meg's intense work ethic, even to their apparent lack of typical rock star partying.  It was a rarity to read a cuss word in any of Jack's interviews during that time (though he'd loosened up quite a bit in that regard by their final year of touring, as evidenced in the Under Great White Northern Lights documentary).  He was a gentlemanly "brother" to Meg, his demure "sister".  Despite the inner complexities depicted in Jack's lyrics, they were characterized as just about the most clean-living, well-mannered, moral rock band conceivable.  They were, in many ways, Jack's Superego, "persuading [his] ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones, and to strive for perfection". 

Id, on the other hand, "operates on the Pleasure Principle, which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences".  Listening to even a handful of their songs makes it quite obvious that this was the driving element of the Dead Weather's music.  Whether it was Alison Mosshart's influence or something that she and Jack brought out in each other, I've no idea.  But he took on a sometimes almost frighteningly dark persona in that band, which manifested itself not only in the music but also, towards the end of last year's tour, in his behavior on stage.  

Which leaves us with the Raconteurs and Jack's Ego.  Freud's use of that word was very different from the definition most people apply to it.  In his concept of the psyche, "Ego controls higher mental processes such as reasoning and problem-solving, which it uses to solve the Id-Superego dilemma, creatively finding ways to safely satisfy the Id's basic urges within the constraints of the Superego".  The Raconteurs strike me as Jack's balancing act between the Superego of the White Stripes and the Id of the Dead Weather.  While Freud's concept is much more complex, when taken on a simplistic level, it's not a stretch to see this band as the one in which the tensions of the other two are resolved and Jack becomes grounded and, dare I say it, even relaxed.  The interaction with Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler, combined with the quiet skill of Brendan's songwriting contribution, seems to create a musical equilibrium Jack's not had in either of the other bands.  This is what was apparent to me at the two shows I attended last week.

The tone of the TMR show began with the opening act, Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, four of the most authentic roots musicians and charmingly goofy showmen you could ever hope to see.  They had us singing and smiling by the end of the first song, which was the perfect state in which to experience the Raconteurs when they hit the stage and began to blow us away (which I unfortunately can't share with you, as video and photography are not allowed in the Third Man venue).  The Racs have been described as four friends who got together to make music, and it was so obvious all night long that that's still what they are. And to be making music on Jack's own stage had to leave them feeling as giddy as it did all of us in the audience.  While the setlist was short because the show was being recorded (to be pressed to vinyl for some as-yet-unspecified future release), it was augmented during the reel changes by Jack and Brendan telling stories of when they first met.  The smiles up on that stage were almost non-stop, and the band's performance was both loose and intensely electric.  

Three days later, I followed the Racs to Michigan for the inaugural MI-Fest.  I'm not a fan of festivals.  There are just too many people making it that much more difficult to get to the front of the stage.  But this was originally announced as the only show the Raconteurs were going to play, so I jumped to get a ticket and make arrangements to fly to Michigan.  I won't go into the chaos created by the promoters leading up to the event because, for my intents, everything worked out just fine.  The location was beautiful, the weather was gorgeous, the people I hung out with throughout the day were great fun, and, yet again, I ended up in almost exactly my favored spot at the front of the stage-- granted the stage was over six feet from the ground and the pit between it and the barrier was at least ten feet, but I still had as good a view as I could have hoped for.  And the band was worth every one of the eight hours (ten, for some folks) my compatriots and I spent waiting for them.  What this show lacked in the intimacy provided at Third Man was made up for by the extended setlist that included songs I'd sorely missed hearing on Wednesday night.  But you don't have to take my word for it.  There were a lot of phones and cameras in the audience that night, for which I will be forever grateful (one person, in particular, filmed some wonderfully high quality footage).  My own personal favorite songs of the night--

Top Yourself--


Broken Boy Soldier. Note the dangling guitar string, which apparently broke just as Jack began the song--

Steady As She Goes--

Blue Veins. Listen for the note Jack holds at the end of "don't mean nothin'..." I've not heard him do anything like that in any show or live recording I've listened to, and it made my hair stand on end--

And, finally, Carolina Drama. It's not complete and you need to keep the sound low due to distortion. But, man, it sure looks good--

These two shows fulfilled every expectation I had for this band. They were energetic and powerful and, most of all, full of an extraordinary joyfulness.  Just writing about them has put a huge grin on my face.  And the best part is that I've got a ticket to see the Racs again in Atlanta in November, their final show until who knows when.  At that point, I'll have completed a trio of shows for the band that is, in so many ways, the most glorious of Jack's triad.  His Ego's a beautiful thing.

More reviews --

Live Review: The Raconteurs at Nashville’s Third Man Records, Consequence of Sound

The Inaugural MI Fest, krewechief's Live Music Blog

Raconteurs End Three-Year Hiatus at MI Fest, Spin Magazine