Historic. That’s the word Jack White clearly had in mind when he opened the world tour for his first solo album Blunderbuss at the Ryman auditorium on Tuesday. Rebranded as Jack White III, and supported by a five piece band, he wanted to make his first show at this legendary venue as memorable as possible.
The Ryman is an imposing venue – in reputation, rather than size. It used to hold the Grand Old Opry until 1974 and has hosted everyone from Elvis to Johnny Cash to Patsy Cline and, of course, Hank Williams.
No wonder then that White throws everything he has at this show. Opening with a 10,000 volt cover of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, White immediately has the whole auditorium in raptures.
His stage presence is mesmerizing. White stalks, struts, minces and leaps around the stage; he stands bolt upright, snarling into the microphone and then swoons over his guitar for a solo. He slides between band members, now conductor, now cheerleader, whipping them up in his frenzy or whispering requests for a change in key or instrument.
All of his band members are up to his high standards, many of them shifting between two or three instruments at will. But White has particular chemistry with his drummer, who has an unusual position at the front right of the stage. The two egg each other on during the show, clearly enjoying the other’s talent.
The rock star swagger might have irritated some in the audience. White makes a point of changing guitars between every song, shucking off the previous instrument and letting the stage hands scuttle after him to shut off the feedback.
Others may miss the stripped down sound of The White Stripes. In his new incarnation White is anything but stripped down. Some of the tracks are given an almost orchestral treatment with shifting layers of sound and energy. A cover of The Raconteurs “Steady As She Goes” feels darker and more profound than the pop-rock original.
But, regardless of frills, White’s genius shines sodium hot throughout the show. He moves effortlessly between electric and acoustic guitar and piano. He’s better live than in the studio – note perfect but with room to riff and play. He clearly loves an audience, manipulating their emotions as effortlessly as he does his guitars.
The show is nearly two thirds covers, if you count all the White Stripes tunes. Every song gets special treatment – even those from his new album get subtle tweaks and nods to the venue. A particularly delightful example: the snarling riffs of Black Math first slowed to a dreamy half time and then sped up again.
Even the lighting is vintage White. Minimalist and tinged with purple, White lights himself and his band from below and behind – glowing silhouettes that meld instrument and musician into a single unit. Behind the band a giant three glows in roman numerals – for the III at the end of his name.
White is making a statement – I have history, I recognise the history of this place. He plays a creepy cover of Hank Williams’ “I Know That You Know” – a bitter tale of jilted love. It’s no coincidence that Williams also had a “III” in his name. Later White leads the audience in a sing along of Howlin’ Wolf’s beloved “300 Pounds of Joy”.
He tells the audience about canceling a previous gig at the Ryman “until we had paid our dues”. He ends the show with a quiet rendition of “Goodnight Irene” by Leadbelly, the delighted audience swaying and singing along.
For all his swagger and strut, there’s something endearing about how seriously White takes the show. Not only is he a professional and a born performer, he’s also a fan. This place is a high church for rock, blues and country musicians. And Jack White makes his first sermon a memorable one.
Also: check out the set list