The Raconteurs: Help Us Stranger Tour 2019 [Concert Review]

The Raconteurs w/ Special Guest Olivia Jean; “Help Us Stranger” Tour 2019; Express Live!, Columbus, OH
September 13, 2019

As soon as the lights dropped at Express Live on the long-awaited Friday the 13th appearance, the outdoor stage which had been full of stage smoke for quite some time was filled with eerie red light while a pulsing horn-driven piece of music pumped up the already standing crowd in the pit and up on the lawn. The Raconteurs hit the stage and piped in music was drowned out by the growling instruments as Patrick Keeler tested his drums amid the growing, growling feedback from Jack White’s guitar amp. But quickly the ominous noise took the shape of the opening licks of “Consoler of the Lonely,” and the band—Keeler, bassist Jack Lawrence, guitarist and co-lead singer Brendon Benson, and auxiliary player Dean Fertita—fell into White’s intense groove and we were off and running.

The title track from the band’s 2008 sophomore release, proved a solid starting point, illustrative of the yin & yang, back-and-forth partnership of the band’s two frontmen, Benson and White. Benson plays the traditional lead singer role, while White’s higher, often processed, counter lead vocals seem take things into deeper, sometimes darker territory. Add to that the raw musical intensity that the band brings to their live concert performances, bringing a heavier, looser and more aggressive approach to songs that the studio recordings only hint at.

Often one song dissolved back into that primal noise and the next grew from it. Benson laid down the slower chording of “Many Shades of Black,” which relied more on the solid rhythm section and subtle keyboard support to make up for the horns on the album. But in what would soon reveal a consistent pattern White would erupt in the appropriate space with a fiery, emotionally guitar solo that takes the music up a notch.

Up next was “Don’t Bother Me,” propelled at a forceful beat by Keeler’s powerful, unrelenting drum beat, White’s vocal going through a processing to make it all the more menacing, and in that moment in the song where it breaks open to White’s solo, live it was far bigger, more dynamic and intense… leaving the listener with the impression that no matter how many times you’ve heard the studio versions of these songs, the live performance brought them to a fuller, more dynamic space. Often band’s use live performance in an attempt to reproduce the album, but for White and the Reconteurs, the recordings appear to be a mere launching pad for further exploration and expression. And, on a side note, at the song’s close, Keeler played four notes on cowbell, ticking off what was a tight high-hat tap on the album… and I’ll go ahead and say it, I wanted more cowbell.

For “You Don’t Understand Me,” White moved to the piano, from which he sang and played the front half of the song, with Benson and Lawrence adding nice harmonies on the chorus. Half way through the piano solo where he was pounding on the high notes, White left the piano to Fertita, and went back to guitar, for a solo that bounced off the big drum beat of Keeler, which was beginning to remind me of iconic heavy hitting drummer, John Bonham.

That screaming solo transitioned into the two-note English police siren that underlies the song “Level.” In the guitar solo section there was a lovely 4 measures or so when White and Benson played a double-lead line that flirted with the kind of guitar harmonies made popular by Duane Allman and Dickie Betts in the Allman Bros. Band. It was brief but satisfying and I started looking for more moments of musical interplay like that.

Benson moved to an acoustic guitar for “Only Child,” a song White introduced. Lawrence sang harmony vocal on the first verse, and White contributed that mechanical sounding guitar solo before joining the harmony singing on the second verse, and on the third go round Benson and White shared one microphone, and again the song’s instrumental section grew in intensity concluding with a fiery solo from White.

While White stayed on an electric instrument, he played to opening section of “Top Yourself” through a pedal (or similar effects program) to create an acoustic sound, but where the recording tended toward a bit of Delta blues slide guitar against a bit of banjo, live the Raconteurs gave the song the full Zeppelin treatment, Keeler pounding out big rock accents against the bluesy framework.

And speaking of blues, Keeler established the locomotive groove of the band’s cover of the Donovan classic, “Hey Gyp,” while Benson blew some serious harmonica. After several shout outs of appreciation to the Columbus crowd, Benson hauled out a standard piece of entertainer banter, saying “we heard two things about Columbus,” before he appeared to only remember one, stating the obvious in the 90 degree night: “It’s hot out here!” Then, White asked for a hand of applause for the lighting technician, telling her that since it was her birthday she could take the rest of the night off. Appropriately, the lights dropped to total darkness, and he suggested she get the rest of the night off immediately after the show, providing some laughs.

“Now That You’re Gone” followed, and Benson remembered to finish his thought in an act of standard entertainer pandering patter, stating that “Columbus audiences are the best.” Oh well, it’s low hanging fruit, and too easy to not to be inevitable when you’re trying to kill time between songs.

For the nearly title track of their latest album, “Help Me Stranger,” White again processed his electric guitar to sound like an acoustic for the opening, while a second percussionist joined them on stage to play timbales, adding a slight Latin beat to the rock song chant. White adapted a 70’s radio dj voice, introducing “Together,” as if it were part of one of the Top 40 sampler albums put out by the K-Tel Company. Probably the evening’s most pop-friendly offering, it was a reminder that underlying a lot of these fine compositions are some listener-friendly melodies that can get too easily lost in all the noise, energy and passion of the live performance.

Things turned darker musically for “Broken Boy Soldier,” which erupted out of an explosion of drums and guitar feedback, which benefitted from tension created by White’s distorted vocals from a microphone at the back of the stage. It evolved into a longer, heavy jam that evolved into an intense, extended take on “Blue Veins,” which builds from a slow simmer to a full four-alarm scorcher at the lead of White’s growing intensity. Again using that rear microphone to add special effects to his vocals, White excelled as a soloist mixing technical virtuosity with raw emotion as he appeared to convulse while pulling the passionate lead lines from the strings of his guitar. He led the band to the song’s climax, put down his guitar and quickly left the stage.

When they returned for the encore, they dove into the fast and aggressive linear guitar lines of “Bored and Razed,” the opening salvo of their latest album, Help Us Stranger, which was designed to reintroduce the band after an 11 year lapse with a bang. The band took advantage of the song’s natural energy and pace and upped it by inviting the crowd to clap and further enter into the band’s furious pace. Keeler, who throughout the night was hitting his drums so hard he stood up, was repeatedly on his feet, while Jack White’s lead vocal often echoed the melody he was playing on his guitar. And for the solo, he adhered to the simple rule that on a fast song, you play a faster solo… well, if you have a skill set similar to that of White’s.

They followed that rocker, with their latest album’s most obvious pop rock ballad on the verses, “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying), but again, in true Raconteurs fashion, White’s guitar tears it open on each chorus. But in a strange aside, there’s that fun little country music coda at the end, which is a welcome if unexpected touch. White roared right into the big power chords of “Sunday Driver” as the rhythm section ground out that metallic “chunk-a-chunka” rhythm, before the band falls into that sinister sounding bridge, with that nearly dangerous sounding lyric, “let’s kill some time, let’s go for a ride.”

As the night was drawing to a close, and the full moon was rising in the night sky over Columbus, we were left with two full hours of Raconteurs’ music to hold in our memories. And we’d only have our memories, because White’s no phone policy means no digital photos, no selfies, no concert video snippets. And no photos of the half a dozen times that White retreated to the back of the stage to brush his hair back into place, although clearly it was untamable.

But before they sent us out into that good night, they had “one more song for all the ladies.” Then Lawrence’s thudding bass line opened up “Steady, As She Goes,” which appropriately provided a chance for the crowd to sing along. Again, White and Benson found a chance to play those fun double lead guitar harmonies, as the song built toward the rocking climax which again found Keeler drumming on his feet, until we heard the final full voiced scream from Jack White, and the concert was over. The band’s 5 players coalesced at the middle of the stage for a bow, and the moon lit the crowd’s slow movements to the exits and the chance to unlock their phones.

White’s Third Man Records singer/songwriter and bandleader Olive Jean opened the show with a sturdy 15 song set, of what her Third Man bio describes correctly as “Bubblegum Garage” pop, a mix of 50’s rock & roll influences, surf guitar sounds, girl group harmonies, and a definitive punk DIY attitude. Backed with a bass, drum, guitar trio, but playing all the solos herself, Jean delivered songs from her recent solo album, “Night Owl” and included a few from her previous band, The Black Bellies. The heat was a bit much for the band’s vocal harmonies, but they overcame with some fun rock & roll nostalgia presented with plenty of punk grit.

Brian Q. Newcomb

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