As it gets harder to make an honest buck in the music biz and more bands turn towards the corporate hand to feed them, it’s easy to dismiss band-brand relationships as anything from disingenuous to downright unholy. It’s for that reason that I was not alone in scratching my head when I heard about Microsoft’s series of secret shows to promote its new “social” phone, the Kin, including a stop in Chicago last month that featured a set by Jack White’s the Dead Weather. While a device marketed to chatty teens and a dark, cerebral rock band may make strange bedfellows, the show at the West Loop’s Marquardt Towing Company went off without a, ahem, hitch.
The 500 fans permitted entrance to the surprisingly sexy venue formed an energetic but comfortably spaced crowd for White and vampish frontwoman Alison Mosshart to ignite their smoldering brand of muscular, electro-driven sludge. Despite White’s reputation as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most visceral bad boys, it was Mosshart’s stage stalking, sweat-effused hair tossing and clawing, hellish vocal delivery that oozed the most raw testosterone. Although the band lent plenty of foreboding power to creepy, mood-drenched selections like “Blueblood Blues” and “The Difference Between Us” from this year’s Sea of Cowards, The Dead Weather was at its best when snarling through the deceptively melodic, diversely rhythmic cuts from 2009’s Horehound.
The set opener, “60 Feet Tall”, sizzled with an intensity that was absolutely terrifying to those of us lucky enough to be standing 12 inches from Mosshart’s stilettos. The same electrical crackle buzzed through Horehound standouts “Treat Me Like Your Mother” and “Cut Like a Buffalo”, as White and bassist Jack Lawrence traded stints on the impressively huge drum kit (who needs a rack tom when you can rival Midwestern thunder with four – yes, four – floor toms). But the audience reaction was never as guttural as when White crept to the front of the stage to deliver the kind of fuzzed-out, spastic genius guitar lines that have made him a living legend and the band’s quiet moments held raw power as well — the intensity of the strange asexual tension between White and Mosshart was at its enthralling, almost uncomfortable peak as the two stood nose to nose to moan through “Will There Be Enough Water?”.
One could certainly look at the Dead Weather’s involvement with the Kin secret show as another example of the awkward dance between marketers and musicians, but in that case one wouldn’t entirely understand Jack White. This was a show as much on his terms as the first time I saw the Dead Weather at Chicago’s Vic Theatre last year – no mention of the product from the stage and no skimping on the one hour and 30-minute set. While I don’t think a band’s fans should expect to stand in line for four hours to see their favorite groups like some did that Saturday, I do understand that the name of the game has changed and keeping our favorite artists employed full time as the purveyors of our entertainment has a different price tag than it used to. The growing pains are still a little uncomfortable right now, but Microsoft and the Dead Weather both played this dangerous card right. Rock ‘n’ roll is all about upsetting the norm, after all.