Even when you’re not physically at Third Man Records, it never takes long to realize you’re at a Third Man Records-related event. We got, oh, 10 feet into The Ryman’s foyer before noticing the slow-moving line winding up the stairs to the balcony, eventually reaching the merch table in furthest corner of the auditorium’s upper lobby.
With this the second show — and first proper theater show — Jack White and his fellow recharged Raconteurs have played in three years, and with it having sold out almost instantly, braving the blitzkrieg of zealous fans was a foregone conclusion for The Spin. Still, we’ve never seen longer merch lines and shorter beer lines — good for us, as we love pissin’ away nine bones a pop for Bud Light that our body is literally going to turn into literal piss within an hour’s time. So we double-fisted our bladder-destined brews amid a multi-generational onslaught of Racs fans who were double-fisting handfuls of swag — from T-shirts to limited-edish Hatch Show Prints.
We soon made way into the auditorium to see what the loyal shoppers were missing: an opening set from fresh-faced, Third Man-endorsed, ragtime-y Western swing revivalist Pokey LaFarge and his bluegrass backing trio The South City Three. The troupe unsurprisingly sounded right at home playing their set-time-machine-to-Golden-Opry-era tunes in the belly of The Ryman. And they dressed the part — pomade, suits, vests, ties, suspenders and a whole lotta aw-shucks-y, Depression Era auctioneer’s stage banter, and bow-legged, hambone-esque jig dancing to match.
That’s the uniform that goes with this type of decidedly antiquated roots fetishization. We get it. But, you know, it ultimately distracts from the listening experience when you look at dudes in their 20s — Generation X or Y-ers — playing a game of Southbound, Dickensian dress-up, in addition to their tunes. Like, we kept wondering what their day jobs are. Do they work service-industry gigs in fields like technical phone support or collections? And if they do, do they speak in their stage voices while fielding calls? Like, “Gee, well, thanks for the telegram, ma’am, I sure do hope you get that Four Square app workin’ all right. Nothin’ fits me to be tied like gettin’ pomade on my iPad, so I sure do feel for you. Let me just fix you a confirmation number. Y’all call back now if your Firefox crashes.”
Nevertheless, with a smooth, melt-butter-in-mouth croon, impressively fine pickin’ and harmonica chops on display, and fairly catchy, knee-slappin’ toe-tappers, our verdict is this: Pokey & Co. should drop the dress-up act and put the focus squarely on the sweet jams.
Judging by the scattered sing-alongs of friends, fans and family — who, in some way, felt like they were up on The Ryman stage with the band — and the J-Bros' refusal to flinch in the face of the rest in the Confederate Gallery, which guitarist Jake Orrall jumped offstage into mid-show, there's no doubt that they rose to the occasion like the champions they say they are. The set’s musical highlight was a moody but supercharged rendition of “Whatever I Want” — the song the band recently cut with Jack White for release as part of Third Man Records' Blue Series.
“I’ve had dreams about playing here,” drummer Jamin Orrall told the crowd mid-show — taking in the moment between all the flailing hair, knee drops, heavy riffs and rock-star runs across the stage with which brother Jake helped secure the band a standing ovation. Brother Jamin would tell us later in the evening he was “ecstatic.”
And so were we. So, pleased and proud of our hometown boys made good (again), we took a nicotine-laden breather in the ideally brisk outdoors, returning to our pew in time to hear The Racs launch into an opening “Consoler of the Lonely” to a hero’s welcome — and enclaves of un-self-conscious air guitarists. Off the bat the band — the familiar foursome of White, co-frontman Brendan Benson and respective bassist and drummer “Little” Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler (augmented by the addition of journeyman keyboardist and Dead Weather dude, Dean Fertita) — charged out of the gate with all guns blazing. And for the next three songs that followed — “Hands,” “The Level” and “Old Enough” — the band dazzled and electrified all with their potent, bombastic assailment of sky-reaching solos, Keith Moon-honoring endless drum flourishes, and a double-down of alto-riffic vocals. And there’s simply no looking away from Jack White’s undeniable onstage charisma.
But just as quickly as the band captivated with their sonic overload, that business became a bit exhausting, at least for us. But the faithful seemingly couldn’t get enough — hanging on every note. The Raconteurs are not a spacious band — which actually makes for a pretty interesting contrast when put side-by-side with JEFF, whose perhaps greatest skill is their ability to so subtly, simply and effectively use space, sparseness and primal simplicity to their advantage. The Raconteurs, prodigious players that they are, are a great band. But at certain points in the show, they just seemed so intent on proving it that they overwhelmed their own chemistry and their own songs. Forgivable, considering they’re understandably rusty, and, by the looks of how White and Benson were nestling up against each other all night, pretty excited to be back onstage together.
And the show wasn’t without a shaky moment or two — felt especially on the White-led, loopy piano-ballad “You Don’t Understand Me.” It was hard to tell if it was White’s dirty attack on the piano (nee keyboard), some uncertainty of the form, or Keeler filling a slight beat over the bar-line — either way, the song was a mess. But such is the excitement of seeing a band get back on the horse. And, honestly, the zealous crowd was too enraptured by the band’s (especially White's) je ne sais quoi to notice.
By the time their 2006 hit “Steady as She Goes” rolled around in the encore, the band had more than gotten their groove back, bringing the party with one of the sickest bass hooks of the Aughts. Groovy. Heavy days. Fun times.