Toward the end of his show at Madison Square Garden, Jack White announced to his New York audience that “the mud on my shoes is from Robert Johnson’s and Charley Patton’s graves. It’s still on my shoes right now as we walk through Madison Square Garden.” For him, the mud was the direct connection between the 1920s Mississippi bluesmen and 1980s hometown rappers The Furious Five, Kurtis Blow and Run DMC.
It was also the musical philosophy that underpinned the whole evening, though the connection was not as linear as the comment would suggest. Jack White’s music is not so much about tracing a direct line between two points as it is about joining multiple dots and seeing a picture emerge.
White’s new album, Lazaretto, the central focus of his current tour, contains plenty of those dots. In New York, the most significant of them was “That Black Bat Licorice,” suitably enhanced by Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip, who took the 7 train in from Queens for the occasion. Another appeared in the r&b swagger of “Three Women,” White’s retelling of Blind Willie McTell’s “Three Women Blues.” But with the Motown-influenced “Would You Fight for My Love” and “Ball and Biscuit,” The White Stripes song that marks a further extension of the Hendrix and Zeppelin blues continuum, the picture began to get more defined.
For light and shade, White drew inspiration from the country leanings of bandmates Lillie Mae Rische (vocals, mandolin and fiddle) and Fats Kaplin (peddle steel). Lazaretto’s “Temporary Ground” and older songs such as “Blunderbuss” and “We’re Going to be Friends” provided more subtle textures, while harder-edged material, such as “Top Yourself” and an almost Sabbath-esque “Cannon” added perspective and density.
But the evening was not merely a game of “spot the influence,” as Jack White is no simple regurgitator of his roots. Complicating the aesthetic throughout the evening were many deliberately unsettling touches. In contrast to the basic staging and limited lighting color palette, the performance was suitably anarchic. From the atonal wall of noise that announced the set opener, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” through the ragged “Cannon/Broken Boy Soldiers” medley and on to the confusing break between the main set and the lengthy second set/encore, Jack White kept his audience on their toes. The final encore of “Seven Nation Army” was probably the only predictable moment of the whole night.
His own performance–jumping off the stage furniture and, at the end, into the crowd–also kept the mood edgy. So, too, did his guitar work, which ranged from sweet and precise slide to nostalgic, out-of-tune acoustic and heavily distorted electric until, on several occasions, guitars were abandoned altogether and left to fend for themselves on the floor in a drone of feedback. And all the while, the band’s tight looseness, reminiscent of The Faces or Exile-era Stones, was the perfect foil, always grooving but threatening at times to fall apart completely.
In the end, the sell-out crowd at the Garden witnessed a satisfying, though not outstanding, performance. But in it, Jack White proved without doubt that there will always be a place for manic, guitar-driven music, and that blues-tinged rock can still be relevant despite its advancing years.