Elephant in the Band

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Music City’s elite have packed into the brick-and-beam Cannery Ballroom, a repurposed 1880s flour mill off 8th Avenue in downtown Nashville.

Forty-five minutes before the headlining act begins, fans in pearl-buttoned shirts push their Pabsts toward the stage, which, as the minutes pass, seems like a raft floating out to sea. Tonight, The Raconteurs kick off their latest tour: This is the place and the show in a city of finicky, well-dressed listeners. I grab a thick timber post 20 yards from stage left to take it all in.

After half an hour of Arabic instrumentals, old Western-showdown tunes and Memphis soul pouring from the PA, The Raconteurs walk onstage. At this moment, they’re Nashville’s biggest foursome—a return to something grander than the pop-country charts. Think Johnny Cash and Opry radio. A week after the quiet release of the band’s new album, Consolers of the Lonely, word in town is that all physical merchandise has sold out, even without a normal marketing ramp-up. I study the dimness of the stage for a certain boxer-like silhouette, for the larger-than-life figure that has every last person in the room squinting.

Jack White wears an orange conductor’s coat with “III” sequined in white dog-bone shapes on his back. Underneath his jacket, an orange vest sparkles with a sequin-lined ribcage and spine. The crowd sees only the “III” bones of the coat for the first two minutes of the show, having to identify White more by sound than stature. But even the most casual White Stripes fan can instantly recognize the guitar sound—something fuzzy, carnivalesque, unashamed.

“Onstage, you’re throwing yourself to the lions,” White tells me the next day. “The audience can rip you to shreds.”

The guy standing in front of me at the Cannery is wearing a fitted White Sox cap (broken off at a slant) and a Sox hoodie two sizes too big. As White and lead singer Brendan Benson trade jet-speed verses on “Salute Your Solution,” Sox Guy moves like he’s at an Eminem concert—flat palm hitting the drumbeat, head bobbing, the whole deal.

When I mention him to the band later, Benson muses, “Must be the Detroit in us.”

“We aren’t niche or genre,” White adds. “[Not] punk or goth or Southern or rock or anything. There’s no one thing.”

“Can’t narrow it down,” says drummer Patrick Keeler. “I love that.”

“At the same time,” White says, “the songs have a rooted structure in melody that you can grab hold of.”

The band’s performance is an introduction by immersion. The two hours feel huge, a welcome break from Nashville’s singer/songwriter norm. Benson leads the band, his vocals setting the tone; Keeler lends the odd hip-hoppish drum thread, and bassist “Little Jack” Lawrence rubs the same footprint all night, steadying a volatile White, who, frankly, owns the room’s attention every minute. Even if he doesn’t want to.

Jack White has a slight problem. He’s become a rock star—a really big one. And today, the day after the Cannery show, he seems a little irked, itchy in his snug-fitting vest. He’s less comfortable than the other Raconteurs: poofy-haired Benson, guy-next-door Keeler, and Lawrence in his Buddy Holly glasses. They all seem pretty normal. Not “I went to summer camp with him” normal, but good, straight-shooting, talented guys. White, on the other hand, is wearing pinstriped pants, a pinstriped shirt, a porkpie hat and, gracing one finger on his left hand, an eyeball ring.

He and his bandmates have gathered for the interview, and White’s celebrity looms large over the proceedings before our conversation even begins. “Remember,” the band’s assistant had told me just before I met the musicians, “This is a Raconteurs interview.” I assume that White ordered this reminder. It’s understandable: Bloggers photograph his house (with its unmistakable red chimney) outside Nashville. Music magazines use Raconteurs interviews to write Jack White-Stripes stories. The elephant in the band is stage left at every show. He’s the one everyone is awed by. But he’s not the only guy in the band.

So yes, this is a Raconteurs story, but it’s also very much a Jack White story because The Raconteurs are his band. Not in a possessive or controlling way. I say his to mean something like the assurance of family—that it belongs to all of them, including White.

Once upon a time, White led. Now, he’s with a group of supremely strong players. I ask him if it’s different playing music with men. He jokes, “Of course. Better? Not sure.”

Benson lightly gives repartee: “It’s three guys—we almost equal one woman.”

A half-second of slight awkwardness follows. Other than the wordplay, there is no mention of Meg White in the interview. None. Jack several times refers to “another band,” filling the room with an anxiety akin to the assistant’s reminder.

Benson, good cop of The Raconteurs’ sound—and the talker during shows—is White’s vocal partner, a Louisiana-raised, former Detroit resident who provides stability and balance. During the Cannery show, while White cut pale glances across the room, twirling and running to sing into the distorted mic, Benson held his mark. “Collaborating doesn’t always work,” Benson says. “[But] the differences about [Jack and I] make it work.”

Benson and White are dueling vocalists, friend and foe battling it out verse by verse. Their exchange is central to the new Raconteurs songs “Old Enough,” “Salute Your Solution” and title track “Consoler of the Lonely,” which positions White as lightning-bolt counterpoint to Benson’s disillusioned soliloquy. This tension is the best thing, musically, that’s happened to White since the Stripes’ comet first lit across the skies. It equalizes the band dynamics into symbiosis: Jack White needs The Raconteurs just as much as they need Jack White.

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