The screaming guitars, the walloping bass, the enigmatic frontman prowling the stage like a caged beast — it all feels like a normal concert. But there’s something… different. The sight lines to the front are blissfully unobscured this evening at the Rave / Eagles Club in Milwaukee. Jack White’s ban on cell phones for the second date of his current tour means everyone is focused totally on the man of the hour. No one is here for the ‘Gram — though there is a selfie booth set up near the bar — and the energy in the room is blistering.
As a millennial, I’ve never attended a concert in my life where cell phones weren’t an omnipresent distraction, and I was intensely curious to see what it would be like to experience a show in much the same way that older generations in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s had. After getting my ticket scanned, a helpful usher slid my phone into a Yondr pouch and I bid a silent adieu to the 21st century. The first thing I noticed as I entered the massive and ornate ballroom was the volume of the crowd chatter. With people presumably unable to check their Twitter feeds or text messages, the 3,000 or so people gather here ostensibly turned to one another to fill the time before Jack made it out onstage. It was louder even than any arena show I’ve ever been to.
Over the course of the night, I found myself reaching for my phone a couple times, seemingly out of habit, but never with the urge to engage with the outside world. I mostly wanted to check to see what time it was. I’d actually forgotten to wear a watch to the show, so my entire sense of time was thrown completely off throughout the show, adding in an extra layer of sensory confusion.
At around 9 PM — but then again who knows — White appeared, decked out in a blue suit with a St. Vincent signature series guitar banging around his wait. He did a couple rings around the front of the stage, then ripped into the opening riff of “Sixteen Saltines” from his debut, 2012 solo album Blunderbuss, screaming the words into a trident of microphones. While there would be plenty of time to stroll down memory lane during this gig, including many White Stripes cuts thrown into the mix, much of the material he performed this evening was taken from his most recent album Boarding House Reach, a polarizing record that I personally enjoy for all its wacky, and unexpected sonic twists and turns. And yes, before you ask, Jack did play his “rap” song “Ice Station Zebra,” — there was actually a stuffed, full-size zebra onstage, that was a gift from The Rave’s owner — and it sounded much better here than on record.
Actually, that’s true of almost all of the songs from Boarding House Reach. Over the past decade, White has shown an impressive ability to transform the character of his incredible catalog of songs depending on who he’s occupying the stage with on any given night. It always sounds like Jack White, but with a few DNA molecules rearranged here and there. With his current band, there’s almost a stretched out, prog-rock vibe to much of the material like “Over And Over And Over,” and “Connected By Love.” Even earlier cuts like “Lazaretto,” and “I Cut Like A Buffalo” gained a definite, energetic boost.
Over the course of the two-hour concert, White mostly focused on the music, while abstaining from engaging much with the crowd beyond enticing us to sing along with this number or that one. The chattiest he ever became was early in the first set — there was a brief ten-minute intermission — when he related a story of himself as a kid, prowling the alleyways of his native Detroit with his brother, slashing discarded pieces of furniture in search of spare change that may have fallen through the different crevices. “Best job I ever had,” he exclaimed.
Naturally, the biggest cheers of the night came whenever White dipped into the catalog of tracks he built with his “sister” Meg through the ’00s. “Ball And A Biscuit” is an unfuckwithable selection that garnered a massive way of joint head-banging. “Hotel Yorba” is as tender and sweet as ever, while “Fell In Love With A Girl,” has lost nothing of its angst-riddled, punk rock edge. The second set of the night ended with another Stripes classic “I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” and as White set his guitar down on his amp, you could actually hear the indignity course through the crowd that he didn’t perform his immortal stadium rock hit “Seven Nation Army.”
As roadies came out and unplugged the gear onstage with the lights in the room fully on and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” pumping through the speakers, the crowd began to chant the riff themselves — “Whoa-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh” — for what must have been 15 full minutes. Apparently sensing they wouldn’t leave, word came down from the back that White was down for a second encore. The stagehands quickly set everything back up, and when White’s mop of black hair emerged over an amplifier, it was like a bomb went off the audience was so grateful. “Damn Milwaukee,” White said with a smile. “Are all the bars closed tonight or something?” Then, he played the shit out of “Seven Nation Army.”
I’m not sure if a cell-phone less policy works for every artist, but for someone with as many anachronistic tendencies as White, it makes a whole lot of sense. And, hey, if giving up my phone means White giving just a little bit more as a performer than I’m all for it. I recently spoke to Tool’s lead singer Maynard James Keenan who had this to say about phones in the concert space: “The more you’re tapped into that thing in front of you, the less you’re actually tapped into the experience around you.” It’s hard to argue against that logic. In an age where the entire world is vying for your attention all the time through a little device in your pocket, it was nice to check out for a couple of hours and really and truly experience something.
“Over and Over and Over”
“Why Walk a Dog?”
“Wasting My Time”
“Ice Station Zebra”
“I Cut Like a Buffalo”
“Fell in Love With A Girl”
“Get in the Mind Shaft”
“Ball and Biscuit”
“Steady, as She Goes”
“Trash Tongue Talker”
“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
“Connected by Love”
“I’m Slowly Turning Into You”
“Seven Nation Army”