[23 August 2009]
It would have been damned near impossible to walk into the Dead Weather’s concert at Chicago’s Vic Theatre without some form of heightened expectation. Even though the band is out on the road in support of their very first full length, officially released just two weeks before the show, this performance marked the first of two sold out concerts. The reason? The Dead Weather is the current project from the seemingly restless White Stripe turned Raconteur, Jack White. Curiosity was bound to get the better of us; the man has practically single-handedly ensured that blues-tinged rock had a respectable home for the better part of the current decade. His newest band is by no means an all Jack White vehicle though, as the lineup employs several accomplished musicians including Alison Mosshart of the Kills, Jack Lawrence from White’s other band the Raconteurs, and Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age.
The band started things off with “60 Feet Tall”, the opening track from their freshly released Horehound album. Midway into the opener it became apparent that this live performance was going to outdo the album in just about every way, although no remarkable feats were required for that. In many ways the new album sounds like a record you would expect from a Jack White band—it’s full of thick, bluesy, ‘70s rock style rhythms with patches of garage rock abrasiveness. The “less is more” recording style sounds a bit closer to his earlier days with the White Stripes, though the comparison stops there. The tone of the album is darker than any of his band’s previous albums. Of course, the most glaring difference with this band is that White sits behind the drum kit and Alison Mosshart largely handles the lead vocals. While this sounds like it would be a recipe for a success, there is something very uninspiring about the album as a whole. The songs are inconsistent and at times downright uninteresting. The album attempts to traverse some very swampy territory but at moments it feels like it is wallowing knee deep in the mud.
Fortunately the live performance boldly sidesteps this mire completely. The show managed to dwarf the entire theatre and on occasion felt too large to have any business trying to fit inside. The huge rock show presentation, with its bright pulsing light show, helped to inject life into some of the weaker tracks. The song “I Cut Like a Buffalo”, which is an achievement to get through from start to finish on record, was more groove than grating on stage and actually stood out as one of the better songs from the night.
Naturally, the hour long set consisted mainly of the band’s entire first album, but they did include a couple of cover songs for good measure, including an excellent rendition of “You Just Can’t Win” by Them, whose dirty blues played right into the hands of the Dead Weather. The highlight of the night came via the last track on the band’s album, “Will There Be Enough Water”. The song brought White out from behind his kit for the second and last time, and found him slipping on his guitar for the only time in the performance, which garnered applause before he could even get out a single note. This extended live version seemed to better articulate everything they had hoped to say with their album. It began with some dense, bluesy, organ work by Fertita, while White slowly riffed alongside on guitar, before stepping up to the mic with Mosshart for the duet. White then broke the foggy vibe wide open in the middle of the song with some of his trademark screeching guitar work, which also found him screaming some of his vocals without a mic.
Somewhat surprisingly, little was lost with Dean Fertita on guitar instead of White. His slightly more subdued style is a better fit for the band’s approach. As for White, even when seated behind the drums he still manages to make his presence known. While he doesn’t quite have the same proficiency with the sticks as he does the guitar, he approaches it with the same raw energy, which accentuates the drumming and makes it more of a prominent part of the overall picture. And even though he has more of a “supporting” role within the band, one can sense his firm hand infused within the music at every turn.
This band is, however, largely centered on Mosshart and unfortunately that may be where the album and show falters. It was surprising to see her break out from the more detached role she presents with her other band, the Kills. While she played the part on stage, writhing and thrashing about, there was something that didn’t ring entirely true about her performance. It may have been that she didn’t quite have the pipes to match her aggressive performance. Visually, her sweat-filled performance was fairly magnetic, cutting a larger than life presence as she hopped upon the monitors to look defiantly out into the crowd, but she wasn’t quite able to find this vocal equivalent, which seemed to flatten things a little.
There is nothing in the Dead Weather’s music that suggests that this is some passing side project, which is a feat in itself, but there is still a sense that whatever they were searching for on their first album was not entirely realized. Supposedly, the entire album was written and recorded in a few weeks, which might explain why it missed the mark. It might also explain why the live show is far superior. What the songs lack in strength is more than made up for on stage.