BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Watching Jack White run a show is a study in contrasts: He’s wants this guitar, no that; this tempo, how about this; not this song, but this other one — Or maybe this third one that can be squeezed down the middle between both.
His sold-out show at the Chicago Theatre Wednesday was a triumphant, sort-of-homecoming show for the Detroit native who now calls Nashville home. White is a record label impresario who commands the respect of a wide range of disparate groups: aging rockers, hip-hop moguls, country outlaws, Generation X parents and Millennial-aged vinyl record fetishists.
His music, spread across nearly three hours, showed why: Rather than present a tightly managed setlist, White blurred various styles, dynamics, and personal history like someone who didn’t see borders between any of them. Many songs from his past were reworked to gain new momentum with his five-member band; other songs only survived the present as frames he burned away to create something new. Throughout, White appeared to be making things up as he went along. Although he’s too much of a pro for that to be true most of the time, he managed to create a show that fed on improvisational energy, and the risks that can result.
“I know only six more songs,” he said, parked at an upright piano about an hour into the show. No bigger lie was told that night.
A second sold-out night takes place Thursday at the Auditorium Theatre. The prolonged stay in Chicago ended up making White an unexpected social media target when single image shots of his appearance in the crowd of Monday’s Cubs game at Wrigley Field — wearing a Cubs jersey and scowling — went viral. Was he fatigued with baseball? The Cubs’ starting lineup? The Ricketts family? White wasn’t saying, but he did indicate the joke was on him — “Kick Me” read a sign taped to the back of a Cubs jersey he wore when he walked onstage.
Baseball wasn’t the only Chicago legacy he referenced. White spent much of the show laying down blues riff after blues riff, spitting out snippets of lyrics and references to some of the oldest blues songs passed over generations (“Catfish Blues” by Robert Petway) to the golden era blues of this city (“Got My Mojo Working,” popularized by Muddy Waters). “Three Women,” an update of an older song by Blind Willie McTell, became an opportunity for every member of the band to chime in as White pounded the keys of an upright piano in the corner. Together they captured the spirit of that music but made heavier and metallic.
The show opened with a similar beast: “High Ball Stepper,” an instrumental from “Lazaretto” (Third Man), his recent album. For almost 15 minutes, his band smeared the song all over the stage, stopping and starting and taking wild turns that established the tone that would prevail the rest of the night. While White’s band took cues from their leader, their playing flashed with confidence and distinction.
This was especially true of drummer Daru Jones who hit his kit while standing up as much as he did seated; he and bassist Dominic Davis were locked so tightly, they were the skilled engine that made this band pivot so wildly but controlled, which was exciting to behold.
Even when the band relaxed into the arms of vintage country music, Jones and Davis made it sound like it was coming out, less from a honkytonk, but more from the Blue Note. “Do people like country music in Chicago, Illinois?” White asked before playing “You Know That I Know,” a previously lost lyric of Hank Williams he lent music to in 2011. Under White’s control, and sung with Williams’ signature vocal hiccup, the song became a warning to critics — especially “every journalist in this room,” he said. Was Hank ever this paranoid?
When the band lowered the volume, White’s finest songs emerged. They included “A Rose With a Broken Neck,” a collaboration with producer Danger Mouse that was a slow waltz, “Blunderbuss” and “Entitlement,” the brightest spot of the new album that showcased the band’s acoustic energy and the harmony vocals of fiddler and mandolin picker Lillie Mae Rische.
Older songs from White’s multitude of bands and albums were present, but never in forms that were overtly familiar. This was especially true of the White Stripes songs that, for the first time, received a full band treatment opposed to the stark minimalism of their previous guitar-drums setting. “We’re Going to Be Friends” did not lose its sweetness, but became fleshed out with acoustic instruments, including the steel guitar of Fats Kaplan. “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)” became proper Nashville country, while “Hotel Yorba” was recast into sleek jump blues with fiddle and upright bass.
On “Steady as she Goes,” one of the highlights from his other band, The Raconteurs, White paused to pay homage to some of the clubs here he played in his earliest days, particularly the Cubby Bear and the Empty Bottle — “I played so many times at the Empty Bottle, it’s ridiculous,” he said.
As the show entered an encore that, more or less became an extended half of the show, the crowd sang “Seven Nation Army,” the White Stripes hit now routinely chanted in sports stadiums all over the world. He would not comply, but teased with similar riffs that ended up launching other songs. At the end, he gave in, standing on a stage monitor to fire off the song’s stuttering guitar line. No one rioted, but a goal was scored for the win.