I wasn’t here in Alaska when the White Stripes were supposed to come up and then cancelled. It’s a fairly common occurrence in the Great White North for bands to bail at the last minute. I bought tickets to see Red Hot Chili Peppers twice. Didn’t get to see Jane’s Addiction for the same reason, and even Jewel who has family up here has cancelled a show. So I was excited when there was an article about Jack White doing surprise concerts in the last four states he had been too which included Alaska. The story was vague about the time of course, seeming to suggest sometime in August. Friends told me not to get my hopes up, after look what happened before. Which was why checking my morning news feed on April 20 sent me scrambling for my bike gear.
The surprise concert was going to be that night but you had to buy your tickets by noon, with seating very limited in the college’s Wendy Williamson auditorium. You could only buy one ticket per person but the tickets were only $3.00. I only had a couple of miles to ride my bike but it was snowing and the wind had picked up. I made the mistake of not putting on boots, just wearing my Converse, so standing in line for about three and a half hours got to be interesting. I called The Master of the Needle Drop to let him know about the concert and that I was about 185 people deep at that point. He told his boss he was taking a long lunch and bailed. It took him as long to find a parking place as it did to drive over.
By the time he got there the line had doubled. By the time it was said and done there was more than a thousand people in line. Normally I hate to be that guy but this time I waved The MND in. Someone who was counting said that the line ahead had swelled to 270 from people doing the same thing. Over 700 people were turned away when the show sold out. There were a few hardy souls who stayed until the show opened anyway in hopes of catching seats if someone didn’t show up or if some of the spare tickets became available. That is a level of dedication even I wouldn’t have managed. The tickets were wrist bands tightly strapped to your arm the moment they were sold and we were told in no uncertain terms that if they were damaged in any way we would not be allowed in. So much for taking a shower when I got home.
When The MND came to pick me up he was playing his needle drop of Icky Thump to get things rolling. As I’ve said before, for me the first step is seeing a band live, second is vinyl. What I find really interesting about Icky Thump is how radically different the sound is between the CD and album. I’m not sure what Jack White intended when he mixed the two but the CD is set considerably louder than the album. It’s like the difference between standing in the sweet spot at the concert and being right in front of the speakers. If you are in the habit of cranking up your stereo and not don’t really care all that much about the details than the CD is perfect. I have to admit the album takes more work to listen to. There are times when I’d much rather just blow up the room, but the sound is worth the effort. It’s almost like listening to two different albums.
We came back at six because the doors were supposed to open at seven completely forgetting Alaskan Standard Time which means things are going to run at least a half hour late, so the doors didn’t open until seven thirty. Many folks were in concert dress including the charming psychobilly styled young lady in front of us with a Social Distortion jacket very much not designed for a snowy Alaskan evening. So there was much stamping of feet and passing around of chemical hand warmers. The good thing was we got front row seats.
Before the concert started a nattily dressed fellow stepped out on the stage and said that there was only request to be made by the musicians. Could we be here, in the auditorium, right now? Which meant not viewing the concert through cell phones. He said that if we wanted pictures Jack had hired a professional photographer to shoot the concert and would be posting them on his site in the morning. They would be free to download. I did not see one cell phone out the entire night and the pictures from his site, see the one above, were amazing. Flying to Alaska isn’t cheap and the three bucks a head he charged maybe covered the rent but not anything else. It all came out of Jack’s pocket. He leveled up in my book of cool.
When Jack White stepped out onto the simple stage, everyone stood and gave him a full ovation just for being there. He acknowledged the roar with a little embarrassment and let us know how glad he was to be here, then launched into the first song, Just One Drink from his Lazaretto album. He was accompanied by Fats Kaplin on the Dobro, fiddle and mandolin, Lillie Mae Rische on fiddle and vocals, while Dominic Davis worked the stand-up bass. Since they were only using simple ribbon mikes to amplify the music the musicians had to depend on skill to amplify the music. They would step back from the mike or just stop the strings all together. The level of skill was impressive. Lillie Mae’s ability to be the counter to Jack made some songs soar to a point that we broke out in spontaneous applause.
In between songs Jack would talk to the audience using humor and giving enough background about the songs that we felt like the songs really belonged to us. When he mentioned that the song Machine Gun Silhouette was a tribute to his friend’s favorite album The Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette, The MND and I did a fist bump. As hard as it was to get that album on vinyl it was good to hear it being talked about like that. Out of the fourteen songs he did three from Lazaretto, three from White Blood Cells, one each from Blunderbuss, Icky Thump and Counselors of the Lonely. It was enough variety to keep everyone happy.
The song that brought everyone to their feet was You Know That I Know. Part of a project that he did with Bob Dylan, Alan Jackson, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, and Merle Haggard called The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, the song consisted of lyrics written by the great country star that Jack had to finish. As he talked about what an impossible idea that was, to take something that had been penned by a legend and try to complete it, you could tell how much the undertaking really meant to him. This would have been a sad world indeed if, first the police hadn’t taken the notebook out of the car that Hank Williams died in and even worse, if the janitor hadn’t rescued it from a dumpster behind Sony music, after somebody had thrown it away.
One of the other songs he went into in depth about was Entitlement. He explained how he had played it for friends and children, everybody liked it, but when he released it to the world there was no end of flack. His question to us boiled down to, “What happened to the idea of the songwriter using ‘I’ and people not assuming he was talking about himself? It can be a character in the talking.” When the left the stage after Carolina Drama we must have called clapped and cheered for ten minutes before he came back out for the encore. After the first song he called the band back out and they launched into A Martyr For My Love For You. For their finale they did Goodnight Irene a classic Lead Belly song. Close to the end Jack walked away from the microphones and up to the very edge of the stage. Using a technique he seemed to have picked up from the Dublin show when the producers cut his mike because he was running too long, Jack got us to sing along with him.
When he left this time he thanked us for coming and said he intended to come back soon, which for entertainment starved Alaskans are magic words. This is one concert that will be remembered for a long time to come and I suspect that the number of people who remember it will far outstrip the number who were actually there.