Jack White: First Direct Arena, Leeds

A quick glance at the published listings for this show had me expecting a gang of sinister Glaswegians to take the first steps onto the stage tonight. It may have been that, coupled with my utter refusal to accept that the ten-foot letters spelling ‘Lucius’ at the back of the stage meant that I was mistaken, that gave me a sense of being underwhelmed when Lucius appear on stage.

The initial, low-key start turns out to be the first few trickles of what becomes a flood of rich vocals coating a swathe of often brooding indie tunes. It’s a coming together of the boogie-woogie bugle boys and hooky, indie. The Brooklyn quintet is very much designed to allow the two girls (tonight, a vision in orange) to be the focus as they easily match the searing vocal range and effortless intertwining of harmonies of acts like The Pierces but avoid the more middle-America schmaltz that they fall foul of. It just seems more dynamic, more relevant, more substantial.
Their interaction with the crowd is relaxed and inclusive considering the size of the venue — they even manage to get a cheer out of a Leeds crowd when they thank us for our “attention and love”.

They bound through the forty five minute set, hardly taking their foot of the gas and convincingly winning us over.

As is becoming increasingly customary at gigs these days, we are asked by a member of Jack White’s touring “family” to keep our phones in our pockets so we can experience an awesome live show and the crowd, to give them their due, do seem to pay attention.

The moment the saturating blue lights take over the room, one thing becomes unmistakably clear; this is Jack’s house. Anyone who has seen Jack White live will know he has something of the big band leader about him. He controls his fellow musicians on stage like they are a living, breathing, sweating mixing desk – and what a privilege it must be to be able to switch such accomplished players on and off as he pleases.

In surroundings resembling a 60’s U.S. television studio, White spends the first ten minutes spewing out pure, unadulterated, blues-rock racket and the audience love him for it. It is the reason why, every time he straps on a guitar, the flat-lined cardiac output of genuine, gut-punching rock music jumps back to life for a couple of hours. I’ve never seen him milk the rock star persona so much – it is borderline vulgar and completely glorious. Once he and his band have warmed up, they crash into the set which is as you would expect; a collage of solo material, Raconteurs classics and White Stripes favourites – all sent careering out into the arena like a just-about-under-control juggernaut.

The spontaneous feel of it all is what keeps everybody on the edge of their seats all night. A sort of broken up, delirious jam at times, it hints at what it would’ve been like to walk in on a teenaged White letting rip towards the imaginary crowd that every fifteen year old guitarist keeps in his bedroom – it makes it a surprisingly intimate sort of experience despite how energetic and like being hit with a cliff it is, not to mention the fact that there are ten thousand people here. We are watching somebody partake in their first love on a grand scale.

Even during relatively low key songs like ‘Love Interruption’ there is a tingling sense of controlled chaos, a constantly evolving scramble through a broad back-catalogue, coloured with a desire to make everything sound slightly unfamiliar; the essence of, if there is such a thing, Gonzo-rock. Variation and apparent spontaneity come in abundance – waves of bluegrass come in when White takes to the piano and then later we’re given a taste of something altogether more Iggy Pop-flavoured during ‘Top Yourself’. During several brief moments, still further into the set, you could be listening to a Jimmy Page improv from a live ‘Dazed and Confused’ as tonight’s music-high frontman wrestles with his guitar to wrench all the bluesy goodness he can out of it.

The encore opens to the hypnotic kick-drum of ‘Icky Thump’ thudding through craniums. Quickly followed by ‘Steady As She Goes’ and ‘Lazaretto’, we are definitely amongst tunes we know as friends. The upper tiers are on their feet, dancing and singing along, willing puppets of their master, Jack.

The evening comes to a close in the expected fashion, White chopping away at his guitar in steady beats until he turns that beat into his most famous riff of all and the opening bars of ‘Seven Nation Army’ stomp out into the air as if they were the soundtrack to a drunken giant negotiating a staircase. As expected as this closer is, it brings with it the equally expected response from the fans and the pit fires up for one last rib-bruisingly, boisterous hoorah. Those seven notes give White one last chance to pound us like cheap meat and send us away happy. We are pounded, we are sent away and we are happy.

An hour later, stood at a bar, I spy an excited couple telling the barmaid how amazing the show had been. Unfortunately for the barmaid, the video of the show she was being shown on the guy’s phone appeared to have left all that awesomeness back in the arena. That guy at the start of the show; was right.