Jack White’s nearly three-hour headlining set at Bonnaroo on Saturday night was the best gig of the huge event, which vies with Coachella for the title of America’s best summer festival.
White didn’t have to do much to impress after Friday’s headliner, Kanye West, disappointed Bonnaroovians by refusing to play for most of his set and instead going on several of his signature long, bizarre, and egotistical rants. White has played Bonnaroo in all of his other bands: the Dead Weather in 2010, the Raconteurs in 2008, and the White Stripes in 2007. While he’s generally supportive of Bonnaroo as an important musical event in his new home state, White has never been shy about the fact that he doesn’t like playing festival shows or for large audiences in general. He’s an artist that is best seen in a theater setting and will play several nights in a smaller venue rather than at a stadium when touring.
White went into his first Bonnaroo headlining set as a solo artist with a positive attitude, and total adoration from the enormous crowd kept him onstage far past his scheduled time as he played songs from throughout his expansive catalog, leaning heavily on material from his solo albums, 2012′s Blunderbuss and the just-released Lazaretto. As for his other acts, White played the Raconteurs songs “Steady As She Goes” and “Top Yourself,” and told the audience the story of how his first side project formed. When his friend Brendan Benson called him and asked for help with some songs he was writing White said he “didn’t have anything better to do.” He went on to talk about how having “something better to do” can be the biggest killer of creativity and innovation there is.
Blunderbuss saw White touring with two different bands, the all-female Peacocks and the all-male Buzzards. For the shows he’s played in support of Lazaretto, members of the two groups have combined with hip-hop drummer Daru Jones, multi-instrumentalist and seasoned Nashville session player Fats Kaplin on the peddle steel, Dominic Davis on bass, Ikey Owens on keyboards, and the bluegrass-seasoned Lillie Mae Rische — who’s kind of the second star of Lazaretto — on fiddle and vocals. Rische was front and center at the Bonnaroo show, as she was on the new record and in other recent performances, sharing lead vocals on “Temporary Ground” and “Love Interruption,” as well as a mean fiddle duel with Kaplin during “Lazaretto.” While there was plenty of White’s signature high-pitched, face-melting guitar solos to go around, he took a backseat during “Missing Pieces” for Kaplin to bust out a bizarre and electrifying theremin solo.
As for White Stripes songs, which are always a little jarring when heard played by a full band rather than the minimalist duo, White went heavy with material from the band’s last record, Icky Thump, kicking off his set with the title track and also playing “Slowly Turning Into You” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” White’s band proved they can tone it down as much as they can show off during classic, simple White Stripes cuts “We’re Gonna Be Friends” and “Hotel Yorba.” Sometime Buzzard and sometime member of Old Crow Medicine Show Cory Younts joined White onstage to play harmonica for several songs, including De Stijl’s “Hello Operator.” There was even a cover of The Kills’ “Fried My Little Brains” (Kills singer Alison Mosshart is in the Dead Weather with White) slipped in between songs.
In general, White was much more talkative and seemed more relaxed than he usually is during performances as he marveled at a Chinese lantern sent up into the sky by some festival-goers — saying that aliens might think it contained a message — and talking about how his children, Henry and Scarlett, had stumbled upon some items of good luck, with Scarlett finding a four-leaf clover and Henry a four of clubs, which, along with the gorgeous full moon that hung overhead for his set and the recent Friday the 13th, seemed to hold some superstitious significance for White.
Shades of Kanye were invoked when he referred to Rolling Stone as a “tabloid” due to a recent debacle surrounding last month’s cover story, in which he came across as dissing the Black Keys, Adele, and former partner in the White Stripes Meg White, all of which resulted in him issuing an official apology that has since been taken down from his website. “Who makes music happen? Does a tabloid like Rolling Stone make music happen? You and I make it exist!” White exclaimed. He also gave shout-outs to his mother, 1930s blues musicians, Nashville session musicians, and auto workers in his hometown of Detroit.
White repeatedly asked the audience if he was boring them as his set ran over its scheduled slot, receiving a resounding “no” each time. He finally closed the performance, predictably, with his most recognizable tune, the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” The song ignited a massive singalong that almost drowned out the band and continued even after White left the stage. In a festival chock-full of EDM and pop acts, White proved that old-fashioned rock and roll in which actual musicians play actual instruments is still alive and kicking, and that young festival-going audiences are still interested in hearing it.
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