May 7, 2015

Confessions of a Jack White junkie, part 13: See you down the road sometime

As the internet parlance goes these days, I had "all the feels". April 26th, Sunday before last, was Jack White’s final live performance for “a long period of time”. The fan-girl junkie had been in deep denial all month because she was still brooding over the Columbus, OH show at the end of January and hadn't been able to get to any of the final shows of the Lazaretto tour in mid-April. Missing the show at Blaisdell Center in Hawaii, the venue from which Elvis’ 1973 "Aloha From Hawaii" performance had been broadcast, was particularly galling because of my love of the Elvis connection and because Kristi, Sam, and Helen were going to that one. But my rational side had taken over and squelched the junkie’s feelings of jealousy and regret as much as possible, so that I was able to be happy for them. And, probably fortunately, Helen was the only one who kept in touch with me during their trip, and she very sensitively kept details to a minimum, which gave the junkie less to respond to. But then… there was the announcement

After many years of performing in a multitude of configurations, Jack is announcing that he will be taking a break from performing live for a long period of time. To cap off the Lazaretto world tour, and following his pair of headlining performances at Coachella, Jack will embark on a short acoustic tour of the only five states left in the U.S. that he has yet to play. The states these shows are occurring in will be unannounced until the day of each performance. Joining Jack on his jaunt across these locations will be musicians making up an acoustic quartet, including Fats Kaplin, Lillie Mae Rische and Dominic Davis. The shows will be totally acoustic and amplified only with ribbon microphones to the audience as well. These shows will be the very first totally acoustic full concerts Jack has ever done.

Each special acoustic performance will be announced day of show at 8am local time. Tickets for these engagements are priced at $3 per ticket and will be limited to one ticket per person. All tickets will be sold at the venue door starting at 12pm local time on the day of the show – first come, first served and cash only.

My immediate reaction was a feeling that I’d been punched in the sternum. Sitting at my desk at work reading those words, my face got hot, my chest tightened, my eyes filled with tears. I’ve said before that I realize how ridiculous these reactions may be compared to very real tragedies people have to deal with in this world, but we all have different things that affect our own individual lives and that impact our emotions. I also know that I’m far from alone in how I reacted to this news, almost every one of my friends was upset over it and we were still commiserating with each other more than a week later. But after a day or two of feeling I’d been sucker punched, I began deliberately distancing myself from the news. I tried to look forward, feeling intense curiosity about what else Jack might be working on with no more touring going on, and when we’d begin getting news of whatever projects he’s involved in. And I refrained as much as possible from reading about or discussing the acoustic shows as they began happening. People immediately figured out the five states they would take place in, but I didn't bother to think about which of them I could possibly get to. I snuck peaks at setlists and the official photos from the shows as they began happening, but otherwise went into denial, putting up a wall of rational calm to keep the fan-girl junkie from plunging me into irrational misery.

And then, Friday afternoon, the day the fourth acoustic show was taking place in South Dakota, I got a message from Sharon about the last state left for him to play-- North Dakota.  The assumption was that he'd play in Fargo, probably the very next night, Saturday. I was scheduled to work on Saturday, but when she talked about flying out there my brain immediately began spinning. People had lined up by the hundreds for the previous shows as soon as they were announced the morning of. I'd have to fly out that very night and skip work the next day. I'd lied to my boss once before to get to one of Jack's shows, but I really didn't want to do that again. And, hell, could I even get on a flight at such short notice so late in the day and, if I could, how many arms and legs would it cost me?

And then more news popped up, this time an announcement sent to subscribers of the new music streaming site, Tidal, of which Jack is a partial owner (along with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyonce, Madonna, and a handful of other notable musicians).  The announcement stated that subscribers would be able to watch a livestream of a special surprise event coming up on Sunday night at 8:30pm CENTRAL TIME. Bingo. What else could it be but Jack's final acoustic show in North Dakota?  My plans were set.  Fly into Fargo after work Saturday night, line up in the wee hours with my buddies who were also there, have the experience of a lifetime Sunday night, then fly back Monday morning and go straight into work as early as possible.  Nothing I haven't done for Jack before, and no lies necessary to get time off. Except that I wouldn't know until Sunday morning whether Fargo was the right city or if the show really would take place that day. I could fly all the way out there for nothing.

I didn't. My gut reaction to Sharon's urging and that Tidal announcement had been correct:

To commemorate the final show of Jack’s acoustic tour of states he has never played, the end of the Lazaretto world tour, and his final live performance of any sort for the foreseeable future, Jack’s performance at the Fargo Theatre tonight will be live streamed on TIDAL. The TIDAL X Jack White livestream will begin at 8:30pm CT/9:30pm ET and will be replayed in its entirety immediately following the initial live broadcast. An on-demand archive of the full performance will be available on TIDAL at a later date. 

All photos before and after show courtesy of Mike Dziama
The 16 hour wait in line was a breeze. When we got inside, we found a small 870-seat theater that was starkly Art Deco and understatedly gorgeous.  A beat up boombox on the stage was playing a cassette of what I found out later was a Lawrence Welk/Bob Wills mix-tape.

When Jack's tour manager, Lalo Medina, came out for his usual pre-show no-iPhones speech, I was as stunned as he seemed to be by the audience reaction-- A standing ovation that was as loud or louder than anything I've heard at a large festival or arena show. I knew in that moment that this was going to be a wonderful, intense show. The crowd exploded again a handful of minutes later when the band- Dominic, Fats, and Lillie Mae- stepped out on stage and began a rollicking intro to Just One Drink.  And then, as we began clapping along, out came Jack, strumming a galloping, percussive rhythm on his old Gibson Army-Navy guitar, and the place really took off.  Folks were so enthusiastic that partway into the second song, Temporary Ground, Jack grinned and motioned for us all to sit down and settle in. Within moments everyone was silent, rapt, allowing the sounds of Fats Kaplin's steel guitar flourishes to ring out magnificently.

But with the next tune, Hotel Yorba, everyone was clapping along again. Following my usual impulse, I began to sing along, but as quietly as possible. Even barely audible, I felt I was hearing myself too much, Jack's voice and the band's instruments were cutting with such beautiful clarity through the acoustics of the theater that they had to be unmarred. From the moment the band quieted for the third verse of Alone In My Home, leaving Jack's voice echoing softly by itself, I couldn't do anything but mouth the words as he sang them. 

All photos during show by David James Swanson

And the combination of this band was phenomenal, transforming these songs that I've heard so many times into truly brand new experiences, taking them to emotional levels that I've not felt before. It's taken me days to describe this show, everything I've thought of to say sounds so overblown and hackneyed.  But it can't be helped.  Every song had some special something that left a gorgeous impression-- From Fats Kaplin's mandolin on Alone In My Home, to the aching interplay of standup bass and violin in Do, to the brief-but-transcendently beautiful introduction to Martyr For My Love For You leading into some of Jack's most tongue-trippingly lovely lyrics... The latter was one of the four songs that initially pulled me into his music and one that has rarely ever been played live, so hearing it in this setting was an especial treat. And Inaccessible Mystery, which Jack introduced as an "orphan, mis-fit" song-- That song really didn't have much impact for me when I first heard it as a b-side to one of the Blunderbuss singles. It seemed somehow unfinished. Completely acoustic, though, the performance this night felt like it was finally finished, as if this was what the song was meant to become from the very beginning, with Fats' steel guitar and Lillie Mae's violin soaring in a way that the electric guitar in the original recorded version couldn't 

During other songs, what made the experience special was the people around me. Early on in my run through the Lazaretto tour, We Are Going To Be Friends had inspired me to begin putting my arms around whichever friends I was surrounded by as we sang along. On this night, when I reached out for Angelina's hand during the song, she leaned her head on my shoulder while the two of us quietly sang the words, and I swear I'll never hear that song again without thinking of that moment.

Another touching element was the casualness of Jack's stage banter through most of the show, as he told charmingly corny jokes during the band intros, admired the theater decor, and revealed thoughtful stories behind the songs.

And then, after a plaintive Carolina Drama that had the audience back on their feet, the first set was over. Already, so quickly.  The break, though, was fortunately also over quickly.  And as wonderful as the band was, as much as they added to the songs they performed, the next two tunes were sublime for just the opposite reason-- They were performed by Jack alone, with his silver shoes, his pompadour, and his warmly resonating Army-Navy guitar. 

I think if anyone ever asked me to show them what makes Jack White such a magnetic performer, instead of directing them to a more explosive show, the sort that most people might think of as an example, I might instead have them watch Same Boy You've Always Known from this show. It was stripped down, simple and quiet, and yet absolutely mesmerizing purely for the intensely emotive quality of Jack's voice. I've written before about how he doesn't think of himself as a singer, how he considers himself a vocalist or impressionist. Whatever the case, the impression he's able to create with his voice is dramatic. Even if you were someone who didn't think much of the sound of his voice, I think it'd be hard to deny the range of emotion he's able to convey.

And, of course, each of the five final acoustic shows ended with Goodnight, Irene, which he'd not played since the volatile show at the Fox Theater in Detroit last summer. I had expected to cry through this entire show, knowing that it was the last for who knows how long, and expecting it to be completely beautiful. Instead, I was too overwhelmed and caught up in it all for the tears to let loose.  The closest I came was the final moment when he stepped to the front of stage, as I first experienced it in 2012 in Omaha, NE, to sing the last verse a capella right there in front of us, his voice carrying us to the end and joining with all of ours in the final chorus.  

His final words were his usual sign-off of "You've been incredible and I've been Jack White", but coupled with "I'll see you down the road sometime".  I know four people who'll be waiting down that road...

The next morning was a doozy. I rolled over in bed and took a sleepy glance at the clock to see how much time I had till the alarm went off, only to realize I was 45 minutes late for my 5:00am flight.  So much for cell phone alarms.  A quick call to the airline left me happily stuck in Fargo til late that afternoon, giving me time to walk around, explore the small downtown under a beautiful blue sky, and sit and think about what I'd experienced. 

And I juggled a mix of conflicting impressions.  I'm so very glad that so many people were able to watch the show via the livestream, and that it's been archived (go ahead, join the  Vault (or Tidal), you know you want to be able to see this show), though there were some small feelings of agitation mixed in with that gladness-- It felt as if the show wasn't quite as intimate as it could have been because of the cameras that hovered inches above our heads a few times and the inclusion of the "music is sacred" speech that'd been made at both Coachella shows earlier this month and in a recent Vault chat.  

Screencap courtesy of Mike Dziama
The songs played were gorgeous and his exhortation about the sacredness of music is profoundly important, but I still had a slight, nagging feeling that Jack had been playing for a bigger crowd than just us, trying to send this new message of his farther out into the world.  The crowd that night made themselves feel bigger than they actually were, though, being so obviously engaged in the music, whooping and applauding one moment and so silent the next you could hear a pin drop.  And because of those cameras that were occasionally distracting and of which he was so seemingly aware, I get to have this experience again and again.

And yet, at the same time, it was a very intimate, special event. That’s the drawback to having seen so many of Jack’s shows, both live and livestreamed. I’ve experienced such a gamut that I have high expectations, and I can tell when he’s gearing a show toward a large crowd such as a festival or a livestream audience. The choice of songs, the speeches vs just freewheeling banter (such as two nights earlier in South Dakota when he'd called his mother from the stage and had her tell a story to the crowd as he held the phone to the mic), these things show me clearly whether he’s doing a “club show” or sending out a message to the world. I wanted a club show, like that one in South Dakota at which he played a song I’d requested in vain back in San Francisco and then had his mother talk to the audience. But does that mean I wasn’t thrilled at this show, wasn’t feeling such intense emotions that it affected me physically? No. I wanted more, but I was more than satisfied with what I got. Does that seem like a contradiction?  It’s just that it’s become impossible for me to have a simple experience with Jack anymore. Every experience is threaded with conflicting thoughts and contradictory emotions. And that’s not a bad thing. It can cause niggling frustration underneath the euphoria, but also makes every experience more multifaceted. 

And I am inexpressibly happy that I was able to share this experience with Angelina, Sam, Sharon and other friends (missing friends were also thought of and spoken about, so they were definitely there with us in spirit).  The hugs we all shared afterward were some of the best I've ever had in my life. This is one of the greatest things I've gotten from discovering Jack's music. I owe him so much for the musical education and awakening he's provided me, but the friends I've made over the last five years and the experiences we've had together because of him have given me moments of joy such as I never expected to have at this point in my life. That's a large part of what makes me so terribly sad about this being the last show until who knows when-- Not only am I losing the exuberant high I've been dependent upon for the last five years, but I will also miss all of my friends scattered around the country. Will we find another reason to spend the money and make the time necessary to see each other without Jack's shows to pull us together?

A few other reminiscences inspired by this hopefully temporary end of the road--

All of the places I’d rarely or never been to before that I’ve traveled to because of Jack:
Nashville, TN (lost count of how many times)

Memphis, TN 
Chattanooga, TN 
Atlanta, GA
New York City (7 times)
Omaha, NE
Denver/Red Rocks, Colorado
Tulsa, OK
Pittsburgh, PA
Detroit, MI and countryside nearby
San Francisco, CA
Seattle, WA (which had been a goal for many years)
Cleveland and Columbus, OH 

New Haven, CT
Austin, TX
Fargo, ND

People have told me how lucky I've been to be able to go to all the shows I have.  Yes, there's been a degree of luck in a few cases, especially in succeeding in acquiring tickets that sold out in minutes.  But where there wasn't luck, there were choices I made.  Such as how I was thinking of refurbishing my kitchen around the time I got into Jack's music and made my first road-trip to Memphis to see him.  It hasn't happened, the wallpaper's still torn, the flooring is still crooked, the dishwasher is still broken.  Likewise, I thought for a while just a couple of years ago about quitting my job, selling my condo, and re-locating. Actually brushed up my resume and talked to a realtor.  But then the Lazaretto tour began and all of that would've gotten in the way. Do I regret giving up these and other oh-so-adult plans to instead spend my time and money running around the country going to concerts? Not for one bloody moment.  Especially now that Jack's announced this hiatus.  On more than one occasion, the decision to buy a ticket and book a flight (or map out a road-trip) hinged on a feeling that I had to take advantage of what he was doing now, that who knew how long it would last?  Friends even said that to me on a couple of occasions when I was waffling, go for it, we don't know when he'll do this again.  My only regrets are for shows that I didn't make more effort to get to. We have to follow our passion-- Not just the things that we are passionate about, but the things that ignite a passion within us, that make us feel alive.

The show in Fargo may have been Jack’s last live performance for the foreseeable future, but it’s not the end of me being a junkie. He's made it clear that he's as busy and as ambitious as ever, between making donations to the soon-to-open National Blues Museum and, even more exciting, producing the upcoming PBS documentary American Epic with Robert Redford and T Bone Burnett.  We may not have anymore of his music for a while, but he seems set on ensuring that we continue to explore the rest of the music that's out there while he takes his break from the stage.  Because that's what it's all about at this point-- It's not about just him, it's about the fact that music is sacred.  



The Crow said...

I so like the way you write, Kali, especially when you write about Jack. I started listening to his music because I read about him here.

Followed the link to American Epic then followed links that were attached to their video. There was a good interview on an Irish television program that was especially interesting.

Glad for you that your hunch proved right and you got to see his last live performance.

Keep the faith: he will return.

KaliDurga said...

Ah, Martha, I'm so happy you've gotten something out of all my babbling! And, yes, I'm sure this is only a hiatus. There's no doubt he'll return, the question is whether I'll still be able to follow when he does. But whether I can or not, there's so much out there to be inspired by, so many musical doors to step through, American Epic doc seems like it'll be proof of that with its look at the past through the present. On stage or not, Jack is a wonderful key to it all.

Krewe Chief said...

great stuff Kali. nothing like the road and chasin' music.

KaliDurga said...

Thanks, Marcel. Sitting here re-reading this post after publishing your comment, I'm shedding a few of the tears that I had expected to shed the night of the Fargo show. Happy and sad at the same time. Gotta love the experiences that can do that to us.