Review: Jack White @ Blackpool Empress Ballroom

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Nostalgia sifted through a cold, windswept Blackpool night as Jack White returned as a solo artist to the Empress Ballroom, an iconic venue in the history of The White Stripes’, being the chosen location for their Under Blackpool Lights DVD recording back in 2004.

White clearly felt moved enough to reminisce, exclaiming when greeting the crowd early on: ‘Hello Blackpool, or should I say, how are you? It feels good to be back’. The crowd reciprocated the warm welcome with a vociferous atmosphere throughout, especially during the healthy compliment of White Stripes tracks White delved into as part of a back catalogue to draw on that would make the majority of his contemporaries sick with envy.

Particularly intriguing about White’s debut solo record ‘Blunderbuss’ tour is the perennial unpredictability which comprises ever changing setlists and, uniquely, the gender of his backing bands, which alternate between an all male and all female group of musicians, described as a necessary challenge in presenting past songs in various new guises, with the female troupe chosen on this particular night.

The packed out 3,000 capacity historic entertainment venue, with its architectural splendour and elegant chandeliers, makes for a majestic venue fitting of a performance from a man whose music transcends conventional musical restrictions, shifting seamlessly between each of White’s many musical ventures. With a song list spanning the primal garage rock of The White Stripes, to the Beatles and Kinks inspired 60’s alternative rock sound of The Raconteurs and the addition of the guttural blues seen on The Dead Weather, there is a slice of each band White has dipped his workmanlike fingers into.

The lights dim just after 9pm, with eager ears treated to a recording of White’s take on Little Willie John’s ‘I’m Shakin’ echoing into the darkness as he takes to the stage in sharp attire – much like the various roadies beforehand – with the aesthetic of the entire band evoking imagery of a blues bar scene in 1950’s Nashville.

The attention to intricate detail which has become a permanent fixture of White’s illustrious career so far is evident, with the ‘III’ logo representing his fixation with the number three located on the backdrop and the overhead lighting above the swathes of blue glow to create an overall sight which commands a captive audience.

The creaking distortion of the familiar opening notes in White Stripes track ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’ awakens anyone still lulling sleepily over their chosen alcoholic beverages, breaking quickly into ‘Blunderbuss’ angry retort to past broken relationships where people take ‘a part of you with them’ in ‘Missing Pieces’, before a striking duet with backing singer Ruby Amanfu on ‘Love Interruption’ sees them sharing a microphone in a genuinely compelling performance.

Hotel Yorba’ brings a return to Stripes territory and the popularity of the first single released from third album ‘White Blood Cells’ is recognised as the crowd collectively sing the lyrics during the slowdown, with White acknowledging their input by stating, ‘Yeah, you know this one’. A spine tingling ‘Weep Themselves to Sleep’ displays White’s adept vocal range as his trademark shrill disperses through to the back of the room on the ever swelling, crescendo laden standout from ‘Blunderbuss’.

Having a full complement of instruments and adept musicians around him allows for reworkings of previous songs not previously possible, particularly during the White Stripes tracks, but also notable during The Raconteurs second LP, ‘Consolers of the Lonely’, track ‘Top Yourself’, which sees lyrical changes as well as extended instrumentals as White prompts input from the violin as well as the piano, acting like an improvised jam session which makes the gig all the more authentic.

A well paced mid-section sees the Danger Mouse collaboration ‘Two Against One’ get an airing, while acoustic melancholy enters in the form of ‘The Same Boy You’ve Always Known’, a Stripes ode to acute over analysis of a past relationship. White shows off his piano skills during ‘I Guess I Should Go To Sleep’ and the solo album title track, before a customary mash up of early Stripes blues heavy track ‘Cannon’ launches into shortened versions of ‘Let’s Build a Home’ and ‘Screwdriver’ – enough to bring a smile to any hardcore Stripes fan.

A rare Dead Weather track appears in the guise of the electrified blues powerhouse ‘Blue Blood Blues’ which reveals its true intensity in a live setting and is a definite show highlight, before the trudging metallic octave shifting ‘Slowly Turning Into You’ leads into an aping of Robert Plant’s vocal falsetto on ‘Broken Boy Soldier’.

A short interval leaves the crowd stomping in anticipation and shaking the building’s old foundations to its very core, before an encore comprising the pounding heartbeat of ‘Hardest Button to Button’ and a true candle lit moment as White takes centre stage backed by acoustic guitar alone for a remarkably delicate rendition of ‘We’re Going to be Friends’ and the late Hank Williams’ ‘You Know That I Know’.

The slide guitar mastery of ‘Catch Hell Blues’ and ‘Death Letter’ signals the end of a commanding performance from a man so at ease in a live setting that it’s hard not to agree with the notion that he may well be the last remaining true rock icon of a generation desperately short of them.

(Jamie Boyd)

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