DETROIT — This time, the tall, cool character playing guitar in Jack White’s band isn’t Jack White.
As the Dead Weather heads across the country on its inaugural tour, many concertgoers will be getting their first glimpse of Dean Fertita, the guy handling the bulk of guitar duties with White on drums.
But for fans in Detroit, Fertita may strike a familiar figure. At 38, he has roots in the local scene stretching back more than a decade.
Even so, this is a beefed-up role for Fertita, who has served as a background utility player with acts such as Queens of the Stone Age and White’s Raconteurs. Out front with the Dead Weather, he’s getting a level of attention he’d never experienced.
“It’s a real challenge and an exciting thing for me, because for the last few years I’ve played as a fifth member in bands,” says the multi instrumentalist, a cordial guy known more for musical chops than onstage flash. “You start to realize you can do a little bit more, and do things a little differently. It’s going to be a constantly evolving thing, but I feel like I’m able to be very expressive up there.”
The Dead Weather formed earlier this year after impromptu jams at White’s Nashville digs, and rules went by the wayside from the outset. White staked out a place at the drum kit, his teenage instrument; Alison Mosshart (the Kills) took frontwoman duties; the Raconteurs’ Jack Lawrence jumped on bass, and Fertita — who had earned his keep as a keyboardist — was enlisted on guitar.
The result was the album “Horehound,” released July 14, a collection of dark, spiked rock that retains the improvisational spirit that marked the band’s founding.
“It seems like it was shaken up just enough to make it inspiring,” Fertita says of the lineup. “With Jack playing drums and Alison singing, there was enough of a dynamic shift there that everyone was comfortable and curious. There was never that worry, for me anyway, about playing in a band with Jack switching to drums and me being in the guitar spot. I hate to sound cliche, but it really was the right chemistry, the right timing, for this group of people.”
Fertita’s career journey has been unconventional. With the Waxwings in the late ‘90s, he emerged on the Detroit scene playing well-sculpted power pop at a time when garage was all the rage. The band released three albums of masterful jangle-rock, catching attention around Michigan but little nationally beyond the retro-pop subculture.
“The Waxwings was kind of where it started seriously for me,” he recalls. “It was my first real attempt at songwriting and taking a band out on tour. I didn’t really know what I was doing so much — it was a lot of trial and error. But I was fortunate to be with the guys I was playing with at the time.”
Pluck and luck followed. In 2004, the Waxwings split, and Brendan Benson grabbed Fertita to play keyboards on a two-man British acoustic tour. Fertita was soon integrated into the Raconteurs’ live lineup, playing keys behind Benson, White and Lawrence.
The group’s sound man, Patrick (Hutch) Hutchinson, was also a longtime associate of the band Queens of the Stone Age. In 2007, he asked Fertita to join the hard-rock titans, and the keyboardist’s resume got another eclectic entry.
“It’s always about learning,” says Fertita, who says it helps that he’s known as an easygoing road companion. “It’s funny: If you listen to the Waxwings, then Queens of the Stone Age sounds like a jump stylistically. But really, people have a lot of the same records in their collection. There are lots of ways to connect, to learn about your musical personality while playing with other people. So it’s all felt very natural to me.”
That learning process is still under way with the Dead Weather, says Fertita, who also handles some organ and backing vocal work onstage.
“There’s obviously that curiosity factor right now. People want to see what Jack and Alison are doing,” he says. “But once that subsides a bit, I really want to see where it all lands. The live show is the most exciting part of this band — it’s a pretty volatile mix, and it could get pretty interesting.”
Though White spends the bulk of his time in back — occasionally stepping out to strap on a guitar — he remains the de facto band leader, keeping other members on their toes as a show progresses.
“It’s a lot to hold onto,” says Fertita of his guitar role. “You want to provide a solid base for those guys to have the freedom to do what they want. If we’re playing a certain song one night and Jack feels like he wants to go in another direction, you have to be able to recognize that, just reading and responding to situations.”
Unlike White, who moved to Nashville in 2005, Fertita still calls Detroit home — even if his breakneck touring schedule has left him little time to stay put. But a Motor City spirit is ingrained in the Dead Weather’s music, he says.
“Detroit is still a big part of our lives,” Fertita says of himself and White. “It’s who we were growing up. I think the difference is that there’s not a scene we belong to now so much. It seems transitional to me now. But there’s still a lot of love for the city and the music that’s made there.”