|Photo by David James Swanson|
Jack and Loretta's love affair began back in 2003. The story goes that he and Meg used to listen to her music in their van, driving around from gig to gig in the early days of the White Stripes. They dedicated their third album, White Blood Cells, to her. She responded by inviting them over for dinner and then opening for one of their shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom. When she mentioned working on a new album, Jack asked if she'd consider letting him produce it. The result was Van Lear Rose, which won two of the five Grammys it was nominated for, helped introduce Loretta to a younger generation, and showed anyone paying attention that Jack had as formidable instincts as a producer as he does as a musician.
And that love and respect was still on display years later when Jack participated in a Grammy event honoring Loretta--
So here they were, a whole decade later, about to share a stage again. It was gonna be a love fest and there was no way I was gonna miss it. So determined was I that, despite a very generous new friend inviting me to be her plus-one when she won the early entry lottery in the Third Man Records Vault, I spent more hours in line for this show than for any other I've been to yet and was damned glad I did.
Loretta's opening set was preceded by a local Nashville guitar player named William Tyler, who's as good an example as any other contemporary young musician of the variety of directions the music in Nashville is going these days. His set was totally unexpected and refreshing, just him and a guitar and a small pedal board. No singing, no words. Just really fascinating sounds. I don't know how it played out towards the back of the arena, but from the front it was mesmerizing. A little taste from an in-store performance at Grimey's Records--
And then it was Loretta's turn. Unfortunately, there's only one video of her set on YouTube. But if you know anything about her, you can imagine the rest for yourself. Both the woman and her songs just as straightforward as can be. She must've had a cold or something because she kept wiping her nose with a tissue, finally mentioning that she was sorry but her nose was "running like a freight train". Totally disarming and charming. And she sounded wonderful. Her 45 minute set was over way too quickly, but I think everyone in the audience knew we were going to see her again that night.
Jack hit the stage with a triple punch of Dead Leaves, High Ball Stepper, and Lazaretto. He was immediately full of smiles. Over the crowd response? Over having Loretta in the house? All of the above? A couple songs in, he stood briefly at the mic and just laughed out loud to himself. At another point early on, he walked to the front of the stage near us and began to do the posturing thing I talked about from the Austin show, but he couldn't hold the deadpan stare, the corner of his mouth came up into a smirk that made it apparent he just couldn't contain his glee. It was fucking adorable and highly infectious.
After a nicely balanced, high energy first set, the blue curtains were pulled shut to give us a break, though no one took a rest, we cheered our asses off for him to come back out even though we knew full well he was going to. We knew that not only was he going to come back, but that Loretta was gonna come out at some point, too. But I don't know anyone who was at this show who was prepared for the surprise we got when Jack's tour manager Lalo Medina stepped through the curtains again, just like he does at the beginning of every show to exhort the crowd to keep their phones in their (damn) pockets. So what the heck was up now?
Rather than a reprimand or chastisement, he instead announced that we should all "give it up for THE RACONTEURS!!!" Talk about freaking the fuck out. That entire crowd roared as the blue curtains swept open to reveal the stage bathed in a golden glow instead of the usual cool blue, with Brendon Benson to Jack's left and Little Jack Lawrence plucking bass next to Daru Jones on the drums (Patrick Keeler presumably wasn't available for drum duty because he's touring with the Afghan Whigs). For two full songs, we were stunned and ecstatic at the same time.
And then came the second surprise, the one that really wasn't a surprise at all because anyone who knows anything would have been anticipating it for weeks-- Loretta came out along with Brendon, Little Jack, and Jack's full band for a duet on Portland, Oregon and Whispering Seas, which was the b-side to her first single and a song she apparently never performed live. It's a song that Jack once told John Peel he loved, so for her to perform it with him had to have been a dream come true for him. Leading into it, he told a story about calling her up to ask if she'd perform with him, impersonating her disguising her voice on the phone and how she called him "baby".
It was so very sweet and funny to watch them together, her seemingly hesitant to get close to him for fear he'd knock her over with his bouncing about, and him wanting her close to sing with him and so he could hug her and kiss her forehead. Then Jack praised her as the most important female song-writer of the 20th century and Brendon Benson held out his arm to squire her off the stage. Before she was even completely off, Jack maniacally launched into Black Bat Licorice and my brain exploded completely (and, boy, do I wish there was video of that).
After Sixteen Saltines and then Ball'n'Biscuit, he surprised me yet again by having his tech bring out the Kay, which is normally the signal for Seven Nation Army and the end of the night. It seemed so unusual for him to be done right after B'n'B, that song's usually used mid-set to amp the crowd up. But no, he was just teasing and gave us a heavy cover of Stones In My Passway, then handed the Kay back for two more songs before bringing it out again to finally, triumphantly, call it a night.
This was the only show that's come close to being anywhere near as powerful for me as the one at the Masonic Temple in Detroit last summer. And I'm not referring to what happened to me at that show, I'm talking about the whole thing, the energy the Detroit crowd fed to him, the joyfully ferocious way he responded to that energy, the surprises that night... This one may even have surpassed that show, as I couldn't help but be empathetically proud for him when he announced at the end that the night had been one of his best moments yet in Nashville. As my pal Helen put it, "...by far my most lasting impression will be that everybody deserves, at least once, to look as happy as Jack looked tonight. It was one of the most touching things I've ever seen." I'm still smiling over it now, almost a week later.
Up next, Madison Square Garden and more surprises. But here's where we've been so far.