Last year Jack White announced the end of his marriage by throwing a party with his wife – guests were invited to celebrate “their upcoming divorce”. His first solo show in the UK fulfilled a similar function. It marked the end of The White Stripes, the band that made White the most fascinating rock star of his generation. As funeral wakes go, it was a blast.
The back of the stage was decorated with black-and-white stripes, a grieving version of The White Stripes’ candy-themed red-and-white colour scheme. White’s dark hair and made-up white face gave him a ghostly look. Around him were arranged six female musicians. They were multiple replacements for the absent woman at the heart of the show: Meg White, Jack’s erstwhile drumming foil, whose decision to leave The White Stripes brought the duo’s 14-year history to a close.
Now Jack is back with his first solo album Blunderbuss. At the Forum its themes of intimacy and violence were complemented by a deft selection of songs by The White Stripes and White’s side-projects, The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs. The theatrical staging and enigmatic mood – a kind of furious mourning – gave the show a charge that Blunderbuss, in its scattershot way, doesn’t quite achieve.
The instruments on stage were a musical summary of White’s career. There was an electric organ for skiddy 1960s garage-rock effects; an upright piano for old-fashioned boogie-woogie; a steel guitarist, double-bassist and fiddle-player for country music antiquarianism; and a drummer placed on White’s right-hand side, Carla Azar, who was in a different league from the rudimentary Meg.
White’s relationship with his all-woman band was ambiguous. He wasn’t averse to playing the axe-toting alpha male, as shown by an electrifying pairing of The Dead Weather’s “Blue Blood Blues” and The White Stripes’ “Ball and Biscuit” in which the blues-rock showmanship was dialled up to 11. Yet his quavering high voice and rapid diction also projected a hysterical, unstable masculinity.
Blunderbuss’s “Freedom at 21” was a Freudian fantasy of a woman cutting a man up; Azar added a hip-hop swagger behind the drumkit. Another new song “Missing Pieces” imagined love as dismemberment; on keyboards Brooke Waggoner gave it a jaunty swing. Throughout the set, backing singer Ruby Amanfu echoed White’s vocals as if mimicking him. “And I’m slowly turning into you,” he cried dementedly.
The final numbers were The White Stripes’ biggest hit “Seven Nation Army” – pointedly brought to a close with a drum solo – and a cover of “Goodnight, Irene”, the folk standard first recorded by Lead Belly. “I’ll see you in my dreams,” White sang. Whether the dream would actually be a nightmare was the question left hanging in the air by this unpredictable and imaginative show.