There’s a real “come as you are” approach to dressing for South By Southwest — florescent hair, ironic T-shirts, giant medallions shaped like characters from Rugrats, Ghostbusters-style jump suits. Plus, the weather is all over the place. Cut-off shorts? Seen plenty of’em. Puffy parkas? Ran across at least one of those too.
But you don’t see a whole lot of natty three-piece suits, let alone ones topped off by sassy fedoras—unless you were at the Third Man Records/From The Basement showcase at Stage on Sixth Friday night. Third Man label boss and blues-loving bon vivant Jack White clad his support staff — band members and roadies alike — in natty attire, simultaneously reminding everybody that there was work to be done, and it was to be executed in White’s extremely particular style. (Unfortunately no photos were immediately available from the event, so the picture above is from an earlier show).
The formality was appropriate, as White’s set had grown into one of the most looked-forward-to musical events of the weekend, and the line to try to get in to see him and his label cohorts stretched for several blocks. People were curious about the new material from White’s forthcoming solo debut Blunderbuss, but they were also simply drawn in by his unique charisma and his chops as a performer. And by tapping into the past—classic country, Delta blues, cacophonous teenage garage rock—he has often predicted the future. What would he reveal this time?
White’s first order of business was indulging in one of the cornerstone rules of a rock show: Get’em early.The opening riff of the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” tore through Stage on Sixth, establishing an attitude and a sonic approach that White saw through to the end of his set. Flanked by the same all-female band from the “Love Interruption” video and his first SNL song, White cranked through a handful of tracks from Blunderbuss, each of which drove home the fact that White’s favorite Zeppelin song of all time is clearly “Kashmir” — each track had a bulldozer of a base that allowed for all kinds of heavy action on top.
There were variations on that slow-and-low theme, as White ripped through a manic, fiddle-laced version of “Hotel Yorba” that expanded on the back porch hoedown sounds that John C. Reilly had indulged in a few hours earlier. But the highlight of the night was, thrillingly, “Love Interruption.” Already greeted as a centerpiece anthem, the song got a jauntier, looser arrangement live, giving it an edge missing from the single version. It was a reminder of why White inspires such adoration: He’s a stately purveyor of the past, but he also just wants to rock.
White has surrounded himself with like-minded folks at Third Man Record, many of whom got to showcase themselves as his opening act. Actor John C. Reilly’s pretty, bare-bones takes on classic blues songs were extremely well executed and heartfelt. “The whole point of this is to keep these songs alive,” he explained from the stage. “I don’t need to get any more famous.” Reilly is blessed with a gently twangy singing voice, which really allowed carefully-arranged tunes like the Carter Family’s “Sinking In the Lonesome Sea” to shimmer.
White’s ex-wife Karen Elson also borrows lustily from moonshine country, though she adds a well-played layer of psychedelic heaviness. (Her version of “Season of the Witch” might be the most logical cover ever recorded.) She let songs like “The Birds They Circle” and the new single “Milk and Honey” slowly fill the hall like a gas.
Their sparse prettiness sometimes got lost in the din of the room (the talking during her set and Reilly’s was downright rude) but Elson was unfazed by any noise around her. The level of confidence that came through in her songs infused the entire Third Man lineup — and it wasn’t just because of their natty outfits.