On March 28, at about 11am, Jack White announced on Facebook that he would be playing a surprise gig later that afternoon at some pub in London, free of charge. Surely this was too good to be true, I thought. There was only one way to find out – an hour’s commute and a mile’s queue later, and I stand in the 400 person capacity courtyard of The George Inn, awaiting one of the great musical minds of our age. In a pub. For free.
The show serves as a warm up before his showcase of new album Boarding House Reach at The Garage later on – the kind of publicity play that is perfect for students who are likely to be scrolling through their Facebook all day to escape their dissertations; to have no 9-5 from which they must skive; to have little enough money that a free gig seems a godsend.
Aside from a few sweating suit-wearers and some probable spice addicts, it’s a young crowd. The road-worn regulars, drinking from breakfast, are puzzled by the opportunist millennials ramming the back garden of their boozer. All attendees are treated to a free drink, a pint of Jack White’s very own Humouresque beer. It’s a light ale; fairly pleasant but nothing special.
But the beer could not contrast more with the music White brings when he eventually comes out, diving into a double header of ferocious new songs, ‘Over and Over and Over’ followed by ‘Corporation’. The four other band members lock sonic arms, as White’s riffs charge the freezing March air. He then shares a mock anecdote about breaking into a hotel room and stealing a trench coat from someone’s suitcase, adding something about Russians and Donald Trump, before launching into the quasi-political ‘Corporation’. Fittingly, the trench coat of which he speaks matches his jet-black curtains and rounded sunglasses, making him look like he just broke out of the Matrix to play for the crowd assembled at The George Tavern.
Yet it is with the guitar that White truly transcends this reality. His solos are garnished with the sort of wailing effects that made Hendrix and Morello so special. He taps his fret board like Van Halen. Watching him is enough to make your hands blister. He scraps together sounds from across the universe, from the Delta to the dark side of the moon. Although he reserves his six string virtuosity on the new album, the live tour should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is one of the most accomplished guitarists making music today.
Years ago, Jack put the noisy minimalism of the White Stripes through a violent live treatment to give it as much muscle as possible. With his new songs, which take some weird and confusing directions at times, the same approach means they make much more sense. On ‘Ice Station Zebra’, his “rap” is distorted into a petulant, punk-y rant; the unsettling falsettos on ‘Corporation’ are downright impressive when seen coming from his mouth. When he reaches the melancholic middle-eight of ‘Connected by Love’, the congregation are completely shut up by the emotion he conveys. Moments that raised my eyebrows listening to the record, raise arms now – the mad masterplan of White is made clear.
Two White Stripes songs appear, including a delicious rendition of ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’. Highlight of the day, however, is a reworking of ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’. It’s introduced as a looser blues number, slowed down and sleazed up. The timeless ‘Ah-ahaha-ah-ah’-s ring back, more handclap gospel than indie rock anthem. Then, gradually, the band thrashes their way up to the sprint speed of the original recording. When Jack barks “Red hair with a curl…”, the whole place turns back into 2001. For a brief few minutes, White reverts to the awkward angst of his early garage rock days. It’s a sort of reverse evolution, tracing back from the style he’s now arrived at to that first truly big hit. It’s a full circle portrayal of his career, but more importantly it sends everyone over the edge. The audience shove the shit out of each other, drowning in a droplet of that most sacred, yet now expired, of experiences – a White Stripes gig.
He seals proceedings with ‘Lazaretto’, and stimulates the crowd to bounce in unison, paying homage to the perfection of his live musical performance. And then like that, the band bow out. Calls for one more song go unanswered, and the audience disperses. It’s difficult to criticise the Mr White’s surprise party. Asking for a few more songs, or more hits, or something with the acoustic, would be ungrateful. The 42 year old loves his songs and wants to share them with as many people as possible, in his element on stage.
It’s a Jack White at his brave and witty best. The aggressive essence of his rock roots burst through just as well as the newly discovered sounds of recent experiment. The charisma of his music has not been compromised one bit. The 400 people lucky enough to attend leave as black and blue as his trademark colour scheme. It may only be seven songs, but fuck me they’ll be satisfied.
Before today, I was jealous of all those who’d spent £50 to stand in the middle of a 5000 strong crowd hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero, whilst having to pay for beer. Now, I’m not so sure.