January 26, 2015

Confessions of a Jack White junkie, part 9: Jack White's ego live and in person, redux

Something about the Dallas/Fort Worth airport seemed familiar and I found myself wondering "Am I even in Texas?"  Must've had a layover there on the way home from another show last summer or fall. But this time I was in Texas to actually be in Texas, catching a connecting flight to Austin for what was supposed to be the second night of two that Jack White was performing at the Austin Music Hall.  I had thought I'd have to work that Saturday, so the plan was to fly into town that evening to meet Sam, Helen, and Kristi after they got out of that show so that I could join them for the second show on Sunday night. By Thursday, I realized that I was wrapping things up early at work and could have made it for the Saturday show after all.  Unfortunately, changing my flight and snagging a ticket for the sold-out show would've cost more than my credit card could bear at this time and would have meant a bit of a scramble to get myself organized to fly out Friday night. For a change, my rational side stood up and took control before the junkie had a chance to, and I resigned myself to sticking with my original plan of missing the first show on the 2015 leg of the Lazaretto tour.  

But you just never know how things are going to work out.  Despite feeling sad, I remained stoic and didn't eat my guts out over a show that I could've gone to "if only".  I got up Saturday morning and thought of my friends lining up for that night's show without me, then took my time packing and cleaning house and headed off to the airport at the scheduled time.  Parked in row 3 on level 3, then found out my flight was departing from gate 33.  Something about that... made me feel that things were happening the way they should. Made me feel better about not letting the junkie rise up and turn everything topsy-turvy.

So when my connecting flight arrived in Austin, I hopped into a cab and had it take me directly to the Music Hall, where I figured I'd wait outside for my friends to come out when the show was over.  I had pictured myself sitting outside all alone, hearing the muffled sounds of the show and pining away.  Instead, I found the front entrance bustling with security staff and people hanging about smoking.  I walked up to the glass doors with my backpack and carry-on bag and realized I could see all the way through to a portion of the stage.  And there was the merchandise table right inside the door.  On an impulse, I opened the door and stepped in to see if there were any new items that hadn't been available last summer.  Almost immediately, a young girl from the security staff was at my side, asking if I had a ticket. I said no, that I was just checking out the merch table.  She eyed my bags and said I had to go back outside.  She was very sweet about it, so I figured I'd explain why I'd just walked up laden with luggage and let myself in.  Again, she was nice as could be and stood talking with me for a while about my situation and Jack's shows. She was apparently a bit of a fan herself and really excited to be working these two nights at the Music Hall.  Then we saw the blue curtains close across the stage and I knew what point of the show I'd arrived at. 

While I was explaining to my security pal about Jack's "intermission" breaks and how his encores are really like a second set, a small stream of people began pouring out the doors. I stopped one group and asked if they were leaving and one of the guys said yes. I asked if I could have his ticket.  He said "Sure", and handed it to me.  I turned to my new buddy on the security staff and asked "Any chance I could go in now?"  She said that she had no problem at all with me going in, but wasn't sure that ticket would work since it'd already been scanned.  Then she was called away for something and I sat by myself for a moment or two, staring at that blue curtain through the glass of the doors and watching more people trickle out to leave.  Since none of them were complaining about what they'd just seen, it was apparent they had just been there so that they could say they'd been there and had no clue of what they were going to miss when those curtains opened again.  Then another security person came out and leaned against the wall next to me and I found myself telling my story all over again.  She said the same at the end, that she'd be happy to let me in but wasn't sure about the used ticket.  But she said "Let me see what I can do".  Then she headed back inside and I was alone again for a few moments.

Right about then, the blue curtains were pulled open, I heard the second set begin and, next thing I know, a third woman on the staff came out the door, walked up to me, and said "Come on in".  She led me to a spot where I was able to stash my bags and told me to go on.  I found a somewhat decent spot behind the sound & light board where I was able to see more than I thought I would, just as Jack began a performance of Ball & Biscuit that included the surprise of Charlie Sexton joining him on-stage to trade guitar solos back and forth. 

Photos by David James Swanson

He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, and I realized I had to try to get closer. Cut along the side of the venue all the way to the front and then managed to slip between people to an empty spot just my size in the second row near the far end of the stage.  Not ideal, not my usual spot on the rail right in front of Daru Jones' drumkit, but pretty damned good considering I thought I wasn't going to see this show at all.  And then Jack launched into one of my favorites, Broken Boy Soldier, and I had not a thing to complain about.  

My pals right there up front. By this point in the show, I was back about where that tall guy is at the far end of the stage (on the right of the photo, under Jack's guitar cord)
 Rocked my ass off to Steady, As She Goes and Seven Nation Army, and then the band took their bow, the crowed cheered like crazy, Jack gave an enthusiastic thank you, and when the blue curtains were pulled shut I pushed my way through the crowd to where I knew my friends would be.  After surprised hellos and hugs, they asked if I'd been there for the second Broken Boy Soldier.  Second?  Yeah, they said, he'd played it during the first set and then busted it out again during the second set.  We joked that he'd done it just for me, that he must've known I was there and I thought of those 3s at the airport.  I honestly don't place stock in things like that and saying he'd done it for me truly was just joking around, but sometimes... sometimes you do have to wonder about synchronicity versus coincidence and how mysteriously the world occasionally works.  (And be very, very thankful when people do you such a kindness as those women on the staff at the Austin Music Hall did for me.)

And then there was night two, the full show I'd come for. 

I've written about Jack's ego before, but in that situation I was using Freud's theory of the three states of the ego as metaphors for the three bands he's most well-known for.  Now that he's performing as a solo artist, albeit with a backing band that he's obviously built a deep connection with, I've had chances to see his ego in the more commonly familiar sense of egotism rather than sense of self.  Do not for a moment think that I'm calling Jack White egotistical.  I've read and watched too many interviews in which his innate humbleness was very clearly apparent (The Dan Rather one that the outtake clip above came from is a perfect example).  But the way he interacts with an audience makes it also apparent that he's accepted his status as a world-renowned Rock Star, at least when he's caught up in the rush of being on-stage.  I've described before how he'll sometimes pause between, sometimes even during, songs and wait for the crowd to begin cheering and then he'll wait some more to see just how loud they can get without him doing a single thing to incite them.  And my friends told me about the multiple times he paused to comb his hair during the Saturday show in Austin, fussing with it at one prolonged point until it became obvious that he was playing to the crowd's laughter and cheers. 

 I don't know how much he did these things in the White Stripes, since I missed that band. But I don't recall seeing this at the Dead Weather shows I attended. And his efforts to get cheers from audiences at Raconteurs shows had a very different flavor, more exhortation than expectation.  But who could begrudge him these moments, with his charisma it was only a matter of time before it'd get to this point.  But sometimes...  

Let me clarify here that when I write about the shows I've been to, in many cases I'm not necessarily talking about "what happened" at the show.  I'm talking about my impressions, my experience, what happened for me.  And sometimes these impressions don't form until after, when I'm thinking back on the experience, comparing it to other experiences, and letting my mind ramble.  In the case of this show, I found myself thinking on the drive home from the airport about how it'd left me feeling exhilarated but at the same time somehow detached.  When the show ended, I turned to Sam and Kristi and said "I have no idea what to write down about this show".  There'd been no highlights, nothing in the setlist that blew me away, no moments that made me feel they just had to be remembered.  And yet as the show was going on, I danced and cheered and and sang along with every ounce of energy and exuberance that I always do.  It was not a bad show.  It was a solid show. But it was just that, a solid, energetic, hard-rocking show. 

There was a bit of this feeling at Sunday's show, that eyes closed, hands on hips, sort of tired feeling.

But there was also this.
And there was this.
And this.

Of course, part of it is due to the fact that I've been to so many shows now.  This was number 34 and a half (counting Saturday night's second set) within five years.  After some of the experiences I've had, my bar for Jack is damned high, probably a lot higher than the average fan.  But I don't have any problem with some shows being just solid and not transcendent.  I can't expect him to pull out surprises and give us treats at every show.  The man's human.  And so am I, my brain probably couldn't handle all the memories it'd need to store if every single show had multiple highlights.  But today, looking back on last night's show, there's still that vague sense of detachment mixed in with the leftover excitement.  Could be due to other things, like the fact that I only got 2 1/2 hours of sleep before I had to get to the airport for today's flight home and that I now have to do laundry and prepare for three more shows this week in Nashville, New York, and Ohio, and the weather forecast for all of those cities is going to make for some hellatiously cold line-standing (though I've survived that before for Jack!).

But I also wonder if it was Jack's posturing.  Twice during the show he yelled to the crowd "Are you with me or against me???", a question he's asked at several shows on this tour.  It seems somehow divisive to me.  My first thought is why would anyone be there if they weren't with him, but then I think of the people who left after the first set the night before.  They weren't with him, not in the way he really wants, but I doubt they would have been against him, either.  Does he really think anyone would yell back "I'm against you, Jack!"?  Combined with the posing and waiting for cheers to ramp up and up, it leaves me bemused. At so many shows I've felt that the unexpected songs and unusual moments he's given us were just that, gifts from him to us, something that we, the crowd, and he shared between us.  But shows like last night make me feel that sometimes he's out there to give but not give quite as much, and in return he wants a more obvious proof of our devotion.  I'm happy to give no matter which mood he seems to be in because I'm so very grateful for what I've already had, so I look at shows like this as just little bumps along the roller coaster.  But it makes the half show from Saturday night in Austin just a little more memorable than the full show on Sunday. 

One thing's for sure, though--  The show coming up this week in Nashville, with Loretta Lynn opening up for Jack, is bound to be one that won't soon be forgotten. I don't know if even my over-blown anticipation is high enough for what this one may turn out to be.

Nashville's where the roller coaster is going next, but here's where it's already been


January 18, 2015

When "Have a good day" isn't good enough

Drove into Baltimore today for lunch and a movie and had a couple of interactions with homeless folks while I was in town. The first offered me a parking ticket that supposedly had an hour of time on it-- Baltimore's got those centralized parking meters at which you pay for a period of time and leave the ticket on your dash with the expiration time showing.  The local homeless folk have started a practice of collecting tickets that still have time on them from people who are leaving their spaces and then selling them to the next person who drives up and parks.  I declined.  Not because I didn't want to help the guy out, but because it just felt so much like a scam.  Which it's not, really (at least I don't think there's a way they could be scamming). So I'm not sure why I feel that way about it.  When I came back to the car after lunch, the guy very pleasantly told me to have a good day. I half-smiled and mumbled a reply, got in the car, and drove off.

The second guy approached my car along MLK Boulevard as I was stopped at a light. He'd already passed a couple of cars that didn't lower their windows, so I fished a couple bucks out of my pocket and lowered mine to hand the money out to him when he got to me.  He said "Thanks, beautiful. How's your Sunday going?" I didn't know how to reply. It was grey and dreary and rainy out, I'd just seen a film that left me devastated (Selma, holy hell), and I was in a bit of distraught mood.  But otherwise my day had been fine.  I had nothing to complain about, especially compared to someone who lived beneath an underpass and might not have any idea when he'd have his next meal.  I finally came out with "Oh, it's going ok". His reply was philosophical, something about at least we both woke up that morning and you've got to be grateful for that.  Then the light changed and the cars in front of me began to move and I had to go. I said "Take care", raised the window, and drove off.

What do you say to a homeless person in these situations?  They're a person like any other, but I always feel like the typical responses of everyday, just-passing-by chit-chat just aren't appropriate.  When someone who's panhandling wishes you a good day, the standard, habitual "Thanks! You, too!" seems dismissive of the difficulty of their existence.  I considered telling the guy I encountered at lunchtime, "I hope you do, too", but then that struck me as presumptuous.  Isn't it patronizing to assume he's not doing just fine despite his circumstances?  I just don't know.

There's no moral to this, and it's nothing fantastic that I wanted to share with others. It's just stuff I had to get out of my head.

January 4, 2015

Another day at the museum: Exploring synchronicity through Setlists for a Setting Sun

On one side of the room, one Setlist for a Setting Sun, The Crystal Palace.  Blues and whites and bone beiges. Glass domes over crystals and shells and butterfly wings.  A Victorian palace inaugurated by Victoria herself.  Four thousand voices singing Handel phoned in via Edison's phonograph. Hearing crystal-clear reality through a scrim of staticky needle scratches is still startling even now. Cylinder rotations thumping like heartbeats or, as John Fahey said, the furious beating of angels' wings. Is this what angels' voices would sound like to our human ears?

A couple of photos I snuck when the museum guard's back was turned.  For more views, go here.

On the other side of the room, another Setlist for a Setting Sun, this time Dark Was the Night.  Still blue and white, with more crystals, shells, and iridescent wings under glass, but this time with rockets taking off for the dark expanses of space. A Voyager in search of other voyagers, carrying the sounds of a man who could only see darkness. We've kept track of Voyager all these years, but have no idea where Willie Johnson, whose spectral humming and eerie bottleneck are an angel's song of a different sort, ended up.  

Again, my own surreptitious photos. More from the artist's site here

It's always exciting to me when I run into things that are meaningful to me presented in entirely knew contexts.  Dario Robleto's current exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art is a perfect example and I got a bit giddy when the pieces came together. At a distance, it's just an assortment of shells and glass and bits of stuff inside a pair of plexiglass cubes and I almost walked past without taking the time to catch the connections.  Fortunately, I stopped long enough to read the little card about the Edison phonograph recording of Handel's oratorio at the London Crystal Palace.  You see, it wasn't too many months ago that I read a book called Perfecting Sound Forever, by Greg Milner, which begins with accounts of several of Thomas Edison's "tone tests" such as took place at the Crystal Palace. So to read that card, then to pop on the headphones hanging next to the exhibit and hear what that London audience heard was fairly amazing. It was a digital copy I was listening to, yes, but still, the effect it must've had on those people, people who were hearing for the very first time an early, unsophisticated version of the recorded sound that we take for granted, was so easy to imagine.  

And then I stepped across the room and put on a second pair of headphones and heard Blind Willie Johnson's Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, a song I first heard a couple of years ago, early on in my exploration of blues music, and one that immediately defined the blues for me.  And here it was, this primal, innately human sound, linked with man's attempts to communicate with alien species.

What was the one thing that tied all of these elements together and made them significant to me?  If you've read more than a few entries here, I'm sure you can guess. Yup, that's right, it all comes back to Jack White.  The musician who was my gateway to blues music, without whom I'd never have heard of Blind Willie Johnson or known that Johnson's song was chosen by Carl Sagan for inclusion on Voyager's Golden Record (I'd learned about this originally in the companion book to Martin Scorsese's PBS series, The Blues, and it coincidentally came up again recently in an interview that Dan Rather conducted with Jack). Whose songs have inspired a craving in me to learn how music is made and whose mention of Milner's book led me to pick up a copy and learn about the effect of those early phonograph recordings on concert-hall audiences.  Is this meaningful synchronicity or the delusions of apophenia?  I know it seems maddeningly myopic but, from my perspective, it's just the opposite-- The things I've been exposed to through Jack have opened up a whole world for me and broadened my appreciation of so many forms of music and art and even science. If not for my obsession with him, I would have walked right past those plexiglass cubes at the BMA and thought, "Shells and shit under glass. Pretty, but how is this really art?"  I would have missed the connections that made me stop long enough to understand the message of Dario Robleto's art.  The message itself wouldn't have meant as much to me.

And Robleto's message is important. The need to communicate is one of mankind's earliest and most primary. We've been using art and music as means of communication since we could speak, if not even earlier. And we're using music now to try to communicate with species beyond our own world. Art such as Robleto's reminds us of this, makes us understand how music can bring us together and connect us, and how vital it is to not take the need or the method for granted.  Words are great for getting a point across, but music can communicate feelings so much more succinctly.

Excellent review of the exhibit from Baltimore's City Paper, here.