The first time The Spin saw Jack White, he was one-half of an act called The White Stripes, playing to hundreds packed like rotisserie chickens into The End. The first time The Spin saw the Alabama Shakes ... well, it was during an opening slot at White's Third Man Records during SoundLand. But the second time we saw them, they were playing to a fire marshal's nightmare of an audience at The Basement. Judging from the standing ovations and frank adoration both White and the Shakes received Tuesday, in the first night of their two dates at The Ryman, they're not going back anytime soon.
The Spin (spoiler!) arrived so late in the opening set, we could have sworn we'd entered some kind of time portal where Big Brother and the Holding Company had shoved the Opry off the Ryman stage. No, it was just one last show-stopping number by the Shakes, who've polished the grunge influence off their material and given free rein to the ’60s blues-rock underpinning Brittany Howard's orgiastic vocals. The audience was on its feet before she'd even finished her last note.
If the refined, road-tested Shakes are sounding less ’91 Seattle and more ’67 San Francisco these days, White's time machine seems to be burning its own wormhole. His straight-to-the-top Blunderbuss LP sounds made up of songs that could pass for odds 'n' sods items from all of White's projects; curiously, their lack of a precise fit as either Stripes, Raconteurs or Dead Weather material is what makes the record cohere as a solo album.
Whether White got a boost in voltage from the Shakes' well-received set, or the Shakes were surfing the triumphant swell of White's cresting wave, the mood in the packed house was crackling as the headliner and his band took the stage for the Stripes standard "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground." The audience stayed on its feet for two full sets (which did not include "Seven Nation Army," by the way — first nighters instead got a revved-up "Steady as She Goes" that came into its own as an arena anthem).
For his first night, White performed with his male backing band Los Buzzardos, saving female band The Peacocks for Wednesday evening. Comparison would no doubt be instructive, but it'll be hard to top the combustible chemistry White has with wild-card drummer Daru Jones, with whom he spent much of the night engaging in matadorial taunts and lunges. (Jones beat such hell out of his kit that a drum head had to be replaced and a snare fell over twice.)
Flanked by first-rate players including Nashvillians Cory Younts on mandolin and the great Fats Kaplin on fiddle (as well as the pedal steel you always knew shoulda been there on the joyously ramshackle "Hotel Yorba"), White delivered what amounted to a master class in rock stardom. He showed good humor, a willingness to ride the moment and an arsenal of nifty stage moves from petite Prince sidesteps to full-on head-banging rhino charge. And the spare but clever set sweated every small, telling detail, turning the "III" in White's adopted name into a surprisingly versatile visual motif.
In this context, songs that always struck The Spin as near-throwaways, like "Ball and Biscuit" and The Dead Weather's "I Cut Like a Buffalo," emerged as surprise knockouts. (The former closed the first set with one of White's most blazing air-raid siren solos of the night.) Nods to Howlin' Wolf, Hank Williams and Leadbelly came off as essential rather than obligatory. And with The Mars Volta's redoubtable Ikey Owens evoking everyone from Steve Nieve to Ian Stewart on keys, the whole night had a sound at once familiar, fresh and immediate — as if you were watching the classic rock of tomorrow minted today.
If you can scare up a ticket for tonight's show, by all means go. You'll experience one of those rare moments when you get to see a legend in the making, while the vapor trail is still hot. Just bear in mind that The Ryman is not the Hotel Yorba — what it got inside ain't vacancies.