Jack White Towers Over the Austin Music Hall

Night two of a sold-out stand

Sunday rang in Jack White’s second night at Austin Music Hall. That was five nights before a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, over two years since showing face at ACL Fest and taping Austin City Limits, and 13 years after becoming one of the most consistently successful rock stars of the modern age.

Jack White on Saturday at the Austin Music Hall, 1.24.15 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Still touring on last year’s Lazaretto, a musically rich, intelligently written album, White arrived wanting to know one thing: “Are you with me or against me, Austin?”

First came Chicano Batman, a Los Angeles quartet dressed to the nines in tuxedo shirts, laughable haircuts, and experimenting in dubbed-out barrio pop. Their bilingual trance of free flowing guitar and keyboard solos over proggy world beat rhythms rang godawful amidst the notoriously inferior acoustics of the Music Hall. The formal wear, coupled with unflattering light design, horrible sound, and a vintage curtain backdrop, gave their performance the appearance of a bad high school dance.

After the curtain closed on Chicano Batman, a gentleman in suspenders and granny glasses emerged to remind the audience the importance of staying in the moment.

“No matter how good a video might be on your phone, it’s actually a lot better in real life,” he said. “So we ask you, for one evening – for the next couple of hours – to keep your phone in your pocket and just enjoy the rock and roll show!”

An hour later, an altercation between two women on the balcony nearly came to blows after one reprimanded the other for recording a video on her phone.

White himself came out swinging with a hard-charging version of recent instrumental “High Ball Stepper” that was all crescendo and breakdown, perfectly matched by flashing beams spotlighting his sextet (guitar, violin, drums, bass, pedal steel, and keyboards). Standing tall with his Telecaster buzzing almighty, White broke into the torrential rap-rock title track to Lazaretto, then segued into an instrumentally fortified rendition of the White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” that jumped in and out of “Hello Operator.” Credit titanic drummer Daru Jones for pushing those singles into such heaviness that they weren’t instantly recognizable.

“I think I’ve spent the night in every hotel in Austin over the years and slept on some friends’ couches too,” mused White, trying to recall a joke a woman told him after the White Stripes played the Continental Club with Herman the German years ago. That led into his favorite original, the country-garage single “Hotel Yorba,” now beefed up in melody with violin and pedal steel.

White continues to operate off-the-cuff, improvising the sequence of songs. His bandmates aren’t faceless jobbers playing in the background, but rather workhorses forced into the spotlight when White demands their solos and then hulks his 6-foot-2-inch frame over them as they complete unscripted forays. The Detroit native, occasionally pinned in the press as an egomaniac, maintains an opposing quality onstage: being a good listener.

After soft landing the 100-minute, 21-song set with White Blood Cells classic “We’re Going to Be Friends” and the title track to Blunderbuss, the band exiting the stage. The packed house called for an encore by drunkenly singing the riff to “Seven Nation Army,” or was it the Atlanta Braves war chant? Who can tell anymore?

That song eventually capped a nine-song encore, as it had the previous night and most concerts since its release. As with Bob Dylan ending shows with “Like a Rolling Stone,” White knows “Seven Nation Army” has transcended the realm of a mere rock song and respects what that means. Still, the most important moment of Sunday’s end run was the delivery of Raconteurs’ hit “Steady, As She Goes.”

A once mere mortal of a song, White gives it new life these days. Its recognizable rhythm builds with increased dynamics into a soul-rock foundation, then veers country-fried with fiddle and pedal steel before shifting focus to piano and drums to sound like a homage to the Doors. When it eventually idles, White turns it into a guitar showcase, teasing other songs’ riffs then ushering a big explosion back into the chorus.

With that show-stopper, White transformed modesty into majesty, representing his new, grander approach while owning his history.

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Jack White, Chicano Batman, White Stripes, Herman the German, Raconteurs, Doors

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