Near the end of his Memorial Day performance at Eugene, Oregon’s Hult Center, Jack White did one of the weirdest, most out-of-character things I’ve ever seen him do. During the final verse of a crushing rendition of the White Stripes’ immortal “Seven Nation Army,” he cut off every instrument save for the drums and sang over the crowd’s chant of the song’s iconic bass line. In nearly a decade since the release of Elephant, that riff from “Seven Nation Army” has been repurposed throughout Europe as a popular soccer chant. That’s far from what White likely had in mind for it, considering that the album was released at the height of his militantly lo-fi rhetoric. To see him even acknowledge that his most enduring song has become “We Will Rock You,” let alone encourage it, was a little bizarre and unnerving. However, there’s a reason that “Seven Nation Army” has achieved that level of ubiquity. The song thrills in every context.
White’s current tour, on the back of his recent solo debut Blunderbuss, is the final touch to his ascent to modern-rock elder statesman. The White Stripes and Raconteurs songs that littered his two-hour set are Classic Rock now. He treated them like “Pride (In the Name of Love),” relishing the extra level of recognition. He opened with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and was visibly giddy when the audience sang more of “Hotel Yorba” than he did. After years of rejection of basically every conventional frontman trope in the name of authenticity, he finally feels comfortable embracing them.
The Blunderbuss material sounds enough like White’s other bands that it fits seamlessly into a set with those songs. It’s an unmistakably Jack White record on the surface—over the course of a 15-year career, he’s honed his blend of blues, folk, country, and rock into a mixture that will sound like his work no matter who else is involved. But it’s also a deceptively complex set of material, full of the kind of instrumental interplay he couldn’t get away with in his other, more limiting projects. “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21” would have fit on any White Stripes or Raconteurs album, but the prog-tinged “Missing Pieces” and the ballads “Hypocritical Kiss” and “Take Me With You When You Go” are very much the work of Jack White the auteur. His five-piece backing band, the Buzzards (the all-male of his two touring bands—he sometimes performs with an all-female group called the Peacocks) was tailor-made for the new stuff but also stretched out his older material. The show’s highlight was an epic, reverb-drenched version of the Stripes’ “I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” a showcase for former Mars Volta keyboardist Ikey Owens.
White’s live performances with his previous bands were always deliberately segregated. Raconteurs shows featured no White Stripes songs, and the Dead Weather’s sets had no overlap from either of those two. His relenting on this point on his first solo outing can be taken as an admission on his part that his projects will always be interconnected. Comparisons between them are still futile: it goes without saying that his new show lacks the primal power of the one White Stripes show I was lucky enough to see in 2003. But this is, far and away, the best group of musicians he’s ever played with. I never thought middle-aged Jack White would be this fun.