It was the kind of sweltering night when even Jack White must have wondered if his carefully chosen outfit could be junked for shorts and a T-shirt. Of course he did nothing of the sort. “Street clothes” on stage are verboten for this fastidious purveyor of theatrical rock and roll. So it was out with the long-sleeved black shirt and light blue trousers and on with the show.
It opened with a deafening crescendo of noise. White is touring his new solo album Lazaretto, for which he has assembled a formidable band, a synthesis of his various antiquarian interests in country music, blues-rock, hard-rock, punk and honky-tonk. The crescendo of noise resolved into the one-two punch of “Sixteen Saltines” from the ex-White Stripes man’s first solo album Blunderbuss. He shrieked his vocals and played a light blue guitar. Meanwhile blue lights flashed around him, throwing black shadows: hence the blue-black outfit. Nothing happens by chance with White.
Such precision might seem stifling. But White attacked his songs as though unleashing a colossal destructive force. A pair of White Stripes songs followed, “Astro” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, both expanded from the original minimalist garage-rock template to include piano, fiddle, bass and pedal steel guitar. All the instruments sounded maximally amplified, an electrical storm of sound.
Meanwhile White threw himself around the stage playing huge distorted riffs and manically squealing solos. He spat his vocals like someone trying to control the onset of hysteria. Between songs he wiped the sweat away with a towel and swigged from a champagne bottle. It was an immaculately staged psychodrama: a rock star on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The impressive Lazaretto was introduced by the wild blues-rock instrumental “High Ball Stepper”. Country violinist Lillie Mae Rische sawed away furiously at her silver fiddle, her bow visibly fraying as the evening progressed, while pedal steel guitarist Fats Kaplin, seated by a vintage television set, bent notes beneath the maelstrom of White’s riffs. To one side of the stage drummer Daru Jones pummelled his low-slung kit, wringing everything he could from the basic drum patterns that White tends to employ. Opposite him keyboardist Ikey Owens played barrelhouse piano.
Rische was White’s vocal foil on the country duet “Temporary Ground”, a moment of sanctuary amid the frenzy. “Three Women” found White at the piano loosely revisiting an old blues track, Blind Willie McTell’s “Lord, Send Me an Angel Down”, while “Would You Fight for My Love?” was an unhinged spaghetti western pastiche.
But it was a trio of older tracks before the encore that made the show exceptional. “Top Yourself”, by one of White’s other bands, The Raconteurs, had a lapel-gripping intensity, with perfectly timed changes in tempo and tone. Then came immense versions of the White Stripes’ “I’m Slowly Turning into You” and “Ball and Biscuit”, White soloing with the ferocity of a man possessed. At Glastonbury the previous weekend, confronted with a cold and distant crowd, he overdid the theatrics. But here, in the stifling heat of the Apollo, the fevered act was pitch perfect.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was named Arts Reviewer of the Year at this year’s London Press Club awards