By Paul Robicheau
On the same week that heavy prog-rockers Tool scored the no. 1 album in the country, it was great to see Jack White let down his wavy black hair, smile a bunch, and kick out the jams with his buddies.
Jack White loves control, even when the guitarist/singer/producer shares it with his comrades in the Raconteurs. Their boldly retro Help Us Stranger, which follows two previous albums from more than a decade earlier, is so incisive and exacting that it sounds as if the record was cut with a razor. Fans also must meet White’s idiosyncratic standards. When they entered House of Blues for Tuesday’s second of two nights with the Raconteurs, fans had to lock cellphones in pouches that enforced against photos or videos until devices were freed by magnets on exit.
As the crowd settled in for the reborn Raconteurs, roadies in matching caps not only sound-checked each guitar (White alone had several lined up), but measured the heights of microphones and wiped each mouthpiece with a cloth as if to sanitize.
But there was nothing controlled or antiseptic about Tuesday’s concert, from the moment the Raconteurs stormed the stage. A bouncing White slapped at the neck of one waiting guitar before grabbing another to join his mates in a snowballing squall that broke into “Consoler of the Lonely,” the first in a handful of riff-rockers that recalled the classic rock of the ’60s and especially the ’70s.
His guitar and songwriting mate Brendan Benson sang the first verse before White took his turn. Bassist Jack Lawrence (also of White’s alternate outfit the Dead Weather with touring keyboardist/guitarist Dean Fertita) raised his axe toward the crowd during one of his badass bass lines. And the cyclical charge of follow-up “Don’t Bother Me” (“All your clicking and swiping,” White snarled, an apt nod to the phone embargo) showcased drummer Patrick Keeler with a Bonham-esque break at the end. If the vocal mix seemed sketchy at first (at least for White), the energy was over the top.
“Old Enough” lent a country-tinged breather with Benson on acoustic guitar and White on electric hollow-body, even singing at the same mic at one point (they did the same later on new song “Only Child,” another sparse arrangement that let clearer harmonies shine). And much like McCartney, White moved to an electric piano to sing “You Don’t Understand Me” with emphatic chords before he had Fertita take over so he could rush back to guitar to squeeze out a bristly solo.
Yet the Raconteurs effectively burned the night’s setlist. By mid-set, White was calling audibles into Benson’s ear — and surprised when he steered “Top Yourself” (with gnarly guitar notes beyond his familiar bursts of totally processed clusters) into the Standells’ Boston standard “Dirty Water” and back again. The group dug into the deeper track “Many Shades of Black” with slightly rougher results as the set wound down. Then White seized an acoustic guitar, took a brush at Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” and led a tempestuous version of “Carolina Drama” that dipped into a lovely piano-based valley colored by Benson’s slide guitar and Keeler’s mallet work before White fired up fans in a wordless chant-along.
After some bands have already nailed a set, encores can seem superfluous, but the Raconteurs only cranked it up a notch with the perfect four-song capper. Another squalling lead-in birthed the new album opener “Bored and Razed,” which unleashed crunching AC/DC-like chords before evoking an Aerosmith song when Benson sailed into the chorus. Fans welcomed the ominous slow riffs of “Level,” where Benson and White melded in deft guitar harmonies and call-and-response vocals. And the Skynyrd-ish ballad “Somedays (I Don’t Feel like Trying)” surged, inspiring the crowd to sing along to its droll coda of “I’m here right now, I’m not there yet.” There was no question the Raconteurs were in the moment, trying until the end — or really not having to try at all. They were having fun.
The 85-minute show closed with “Steady as She Goes,” given more of a raw edge than its popular studio version. It’s as close to a pop hit as the Raconteurs even came, largely thanks to Benson’s deft sense of songcraft, but the group stands as White’s most traditional rock ‘n’ roll outlet. On the same week that heavy prog-rockers Tool scored the no. 1 album in the country, it was great to see White let down his wavy black hair, smile a bunch, and kick out the jams with his buddies.
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.