Jack White at the Orange Peel

Jack White, I was told, doesn’t do set lists. “He likes to just wing everything,” said the harried-looking tech guy. Luckily, someone else jotted it down — if you’d like to see the play-by-play of what White and his band performed during Saturday’s show at The Orange Peel, check it out at setlist.fm (where you can also link to videos of said songs). 

White followed a leave-it-all-on-the-stage set by Alabama Shakes (common sentiment seemed to be that few besides White could follow the much-hyped, Athens, Ala.-based retro-rockers), launching with an intense version of The White Stripes song “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” It was a huge song, bolstered by huge drum and a punch to the gut such that maintaining that level of energy for the length of a concert seemed impossible. But, as local musician Curt Arledge said on Twitter, “Go see Jack White tonight. Pretty sure he left a crater on the beach @Hangoutfest last night.” What sounded like metaphor* proved to be fact. White played for about an hour and a half and only fueled the bonfire of his performance.

*Speaking of metaphors, remember White’s quest for a Guinness Record for most metaphors used during a concert? Not a single metaphor was heard when he spoke to the audience. Unless he was counting those in his songs. If that’s the case then…

The evening was a mix of new tracks from just-released Blunderbuss (including, early on, “Missing Pieces,” “Sixteen Salteens” and the single “Love Interruption”; and, at the end of the night, “Take Me With You When You Go” and “Freedom At 21”) as well as songs from The Raconteurs (“Top Yourself,” “Steady, As She Goes”), Dead Weather (“Blue Blood Blues,” “I Cut Like A Buffalo”) and, of course, the White Stripes — including a “Hotel Yorba” singalong.

The set was fabric strips, blue lights, smoke, and White — looking all Edward Scissorhands with his black clothes and alabaster skin. Recent TV appearances have seen him with both an all-female and an all-male band; press says that “While touring, he alternates between an all-female and all-male band that he doesn’t select until the last minute.” He played Asheville with the women, who wore angelic white but rocked like demons. (Worth noting: the set-up crew were all men, dressed in matching skinny suits and black fedoras, more like a gang of mobsters than roadies.) The rhythm section consisted of a drum kit (at the front of the stage) and a bowed stand-up bass; instead of rhythm guitar there was pedal steel and fiddle, a keyboardist and powerhouse vocalist Ruby Amanfu of r&b duo Sam & Ruby

While the female band isn’t White’s full-time backer, it’s interesting to think about how much of his career has been centered around women. Sure, there had been girl drummers before the White Stripes, but Meg White’s role was more than novelty and the two Whites, their whole more than a sum of their parts, was the resurrection of drum-and-guitar duos. (Plus, it’s from Meg that Jack took his surname name.) And then there was 2004 Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose, country star Loretta Lynn’s comeback at age 72.There was The Dead Weather with Alison Mossheart of The Kills, White’s work on Wanda Jackson’s 2011 The Party Ain’t Over and, also in 2011, his discovery of all-girl garage-goth band The Black Belles. I don’t get the feeling Jack White is trying to make a political statement, and yet, isn’t it? Women are inarguably underrepresented in music and here is one of the most famous and influential musicians of our time basically building his career on a foundation of female artists.

If there was a point, at all, to the all-female outfit on stage, maybe it’s that gender doesn’t affect one’s ability to rock. The performance was searing, scorching, pummeling. For all of White’s insouciance and swagger, the fiddle burned, the bass growled and the steel guitar was a fierce and braying foil to White’s metallic solos.

“Y’all like country music out here, right?” White asked before launching into “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep,” a punk-tinged honky-tonk that, like Blunderbuss’ “Hypnotics Kiss” and “Take Me With You When You Go,” makes use of a capricious roadhouse-meets-ragtime piano. White’s voice is as varried as his song styles and instrumentation, ranging from high and ragged at the edges to low and menacing. There’s an off-kilter-ness to each song, a wildness just barely reeled in.

There were a couple of well-chosen covers: Hank Williams’ “You Know That I Know” and, for the finale, the Leadbelly chestnut “Goodnight Irene,” which continued even after White left the stage, as he leaned his guitar against the speaker, filling the room with the drone of feedback until a stagehand turned it off. White also mentioned, during the evening, playing at Vincent’s Ear a dozen years ago. That show is a bit of legend in local history, but that White recalls it is somewhat surprising. He said he “was in a band with this girl” and described that show coming at a time when the White Stripes weren’t getting much notice. He seemed to recall, fondly, the Asheville reception. (Find photos and a set list here.)

White, himself, seems a character culled from Tim Burton movies, Lemony Snicket stories, the portrayal of “Georgia” in the film version of Cold Mountain and his own preternatural biography. But who among us is not a character of our own design? And, while White’s stage persona is not without some pretension, he also gives off the impression of being truly genuine in his performance. I think that, up to this point, White has been a master of reviving and synthesizing music styles — blues, rock, country blues rock… but it’s as if, with Blunderbuss and this tour, he’s no longer just really good at utilizing his arsenal of influences, he’s actually transcended them. Yes, the Orange Peel show was loud. It was blistering. It was, at times, a full-on assault — a strike to the solar plexus. It almost hurt. But it was also uplifting. Light out of the murk of low notes, the heaviness of the rhythm section, the gloom. I recently read that the term apocalypse originally meant “to uncover, reveal.” That’s one word that drifted through my mind while White was on stage, bringing the doom; I have to say that the Middle English etymology suits White’s end result. Jack White is to a rock concert what an Kenyan marathon runner is to 5 K race. Effortless.

Photos courtesy of Sandlin Gaither.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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