Thursday, June 18, 2009

Writing, unplugged - or what I did at the Dead Weather show yesterday

The Dead Weather, Roxy Theatre June 17th 2009

I got to the Roxy Theatre in time to hear the strains of sound-checked Treat Me Like Your Mother pounding out through the flat black walls. Southern California is good at make-believe – it is the local specialty after all. Films, Disneyland, Universal Studios, Ripley's Believe It or Not – but when applied by the amateur, you can see the joins. In the case of the Roxy Theatre, painting it flat black does not necessarily make it phew rock 'n' roll – at least not in the daylight. And LA has PLENTY of daylight. Illusions whimper and die under the glare of the sun. We're just across the road from Hustler headquarters, which sells vanilla lingerie from bored looking mannequins in the windows and promises videos (not DVDs, videos). There are walk-of-fame style handprints outside. I read them on the way here. One is the handprint of Jenna Jameson. Think where those hands have been. Small hands, pointed fingers. Like an Orc.

The sound check has a deep and throaty rumble, like a muscle car. Leg pipes roar. It's working well, firing on all cylinders, though the band stops regularly, presumably to point out sound problems to their Homepride Fred roadies with their hats and suits.

I Cut Like A Buffalo booms out. That's Jack, all right. Hang You From the Heavens follows, Alison singing on that one. They're all here for the sound check, taking this seriously. Jack White had said that he wanted to tour the south for a lot of gigs, get used to things, wear it in, hone the edge and stuff but the internet had ruined that. I'm not sure how the internet ruined it – I live there, and it didn't say anything to me about ruining things for Jack White, but he comes from a different space from me. This sound check is a full blown rehearsal. I've never heard anyone take one so seriously. Rumor is Jimmy Page was coming tonight, so maybe there's some pressure.

I'm writing this stuff in a journal with a pen and paper and it occurs to me that while The Dead Weather is inside doing what it does, I'm outside doing what I do – writing – except given the nature of my venue I'm doing an acoustic set. I haven't written unplugged for years. It's taking a toll. I have painful dimples in my writing calluses and my pen is about to give up the ghost. Poor me, trapped away from my toys.

A tour photographer turns up (with a yellow wristband for his camera) and photographs the Roxy's sign. He takes a picture of a typical Dead Weather fan, which apparently isn't me but a young couple clad in black, no logos. He gets a picture of the Dead Weather marquee (mostly made out of masking tape – the Roxy seems to be short on pre-fab letters) about five seconds before it's replaced with the next band. There's two shows on tonight, so the Dead Weather are history even before we get into the venue.

Men in Homepride costumes come out and argue a few line-jumpers away from the entrance to the Roxy's minuscule parking lot. I turn to see them jump back in their bus still in perfect Homepride formation, and behind the tinted windows of the bus I can see the sphinx silhouette of Little Jack. Once they're out, we're in. The poor put-upon support band gets about five minutes for a check and then we're into the auditorium, which holds about 800. Although I'm about twentieth in line, a momentary dither as I walk into the dark unknown means I don’t get a stage position. I adopt the octopus technique, putting my hand on the stage (it's at thigh height) and then oozing up my own arm until I'm miraculously sitting on the stage. It's worked before, and it worked again.

The sound system gets into Lyle pleasing mode immediately by playing NWA's Gangsta, Gangsta. Crisp, lovely drum sound with a shattering snare, driving bass, stunning Dr. Dre production, Easy E's cool vocals. Excellent song that hits all the chakras and makes the body sway. The acoustics here are outstanding. We're in a venue the size of my front room with a stage you could trip over, about to watch people you would normally see at a festival with a ten foot security pit in front of the stage.

I order a gin from the extraterrestrial waitress. She must be. How else is she going to find me in a crowd with a drink for me? Ten bucks for a gin. I haven't had a drink in four years. Let's see what this does. I talk to the woman who's facing the stage as I sit on it, facing out. She told me her name, and of course I've forgotten it. (Edit: Sherry, or Sherri. Hi, if you're reading this.) She's so pleased I'm writing in a journal. Something tangible, she says, echoing Jack White's recent comments about "tangible music" (music on vinyl as opposed to mp3).

The curtain rises. The stage has two sides; the Little Jack side and the front. I'm at the Little Jack side and so I can see the front row of the audience as well as I can see the band. It wasn't till the next day I found out the opening band's name. Mini Mansions. Three pieces – a keyboard player, who looks like an Osmond Brother, a guitarist who doubles as a drummer, playing a snare and tom-tom arrangement standing up, and a bassist who is a thrashing demon from hell with about 20 effects pedals in a tic-tac-toe board at his feet. The harmonies are marvelous, beautiful Beatle-ey songs which are mostly without guitar because the guitarist puts it down and hits the drums harder than I thought possible. For one song he plays slide guitar and between the melody and the harmony it seems Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd is alive again. Then the band slide into Blondie's Heart of Glass, the sublime power-pop song now with fuzz bass guitar driving it into a feedback frenzy. Good stuff.

The curtain falls for a brief moment and we all get chance to listen to Blank Generation, the Richard Hell and the Voidoids tune that charmed me around the year Jack White was born. I order a second gin. The ET waitress finds me again. There's no lights in the auditorium – just the beer light to guide us – and so the light show is provided by the audience checking their calls, the lambent screens of their cells glowing into existence one by one all over and extinguishing as they finish, great slow glow worms moving around the audience in a pretty random walk.

The curtain rises again and The Dead Weather are in front of us. The stage is well lit. There are no strobes or color spots or moving twirling shit, leaving the entire band visible along with the first row of listeners. There's stage fog, of course, making the cramped, flat black place feel like a showcave filled with tourist breath (except it's warm in here). Jack's at the back with his drumskin showing the Brides of Dracula. Little Jack's a yard away from me with an abbreviated pedal board - at least compared with the bassist before him. Alison's a skinny figure in the middle pacing and glaring out with Iggy-level intensity, and Dean's on the far side with his guitar, his keyboards behind him.



Now, I mentioned writing is what I do, the same as music is what The Dead Weather does. But while it's okay for DW to play music in front of me, it's not okay for me to write in front of them. There's a social contract here. If they play the part of a band, I have to play the part of an audience. Audiences don't scribble in little books, they nod appreciatively and clap and say "Whooo!" I'm failing in my role. Enormous social pressures briefly load up and I put my book away. So I have nothing contemporaneous to say about DW's set. The notes were taken later. Isn't that odd how we play our assigned part?

They played a similar set list to those of the preview shows this month – I Cut Like a Buffalo, Treat Me Like Your Mother, 60 ft Tall, Will There Be Enough Water. There's an mp3 of the show already uploaded and I will listen to that later and revise this. The encore was Hang You From the Heavens and Dylan's New Pony.

Little Jack has a giant white Gretsch bass guitar the size of Moby Dick, and a wedding ring. How cute. He got married a few weeks ago. I wonder if it feels different, playing with an unfamiliar ring on your finger. He's probably the most self-contained man in Christendom. I was four feet away from him and could see his eyes focused at infinity, the place where music happens, instead of individual faces, the place where influence happens. He never looks at individuals, and that seems to be a DW trait, at least the men.

Alison Mosshart wore skinny black jeans, gold boots, a black t and a blue top. She's filled with nervy energy, jumping on the monitors, pacing and whirling. During the encore she lay on her back, still projecting brooding intensity. The puritanical atmosphere of LA must have broken her chain-smoker nerve, though, because she turned her back to smoke.

I saw a front row Egyptian Queen, kohl eyes and jet hair transfixed as Alison balanced on a monitor and touched her head. I remember Alison looking at me, and a sharp jolt of Medusa venom firing into my flesh, freezing the skin on my face, leaving me wondering if I could fight or if I should just submit and turn to agate. The choice was taken from me as she looked away and I was allowed to revert.

Jack wore black and a cheery scowl. Hey, it's Jack. He was the only one to address the audience and that was a "Hello LA wherever you are!" type comment. Someone shouted "We love you, Jack!" and he replied, "I love you too, baby, unless you mean the other Jack." Which it could well have been, as the other Jack is LJ, who really does get a lot of well-deserved love from the audience. Big Jack is imposing (more like an ox than a buffalo), good-looking and possibly the most gifted guitarist of his generation, but didn't knock me dead with his star quality, which was unexpected. The camera loves him, and I thought he had that in person too.

Dean had a giant Gretsch as well. He has a great deal of charisma but he wasn't using it and may not actually know where the on-switch is.

Later on, during Will There Be Enough Water, I really thought the band gelled. That's the song where Jack was on guitar and Little Jack played drums. The Jacks looked into each other's eyes, shared the vision and acted as one entity. Jack White has plenty of rhythm. When he plays rhythm guitar with Meg White he swings, Meg follows, and our bodies move with it. It's perfect – and I mean perfect. The White Stripes have produced the best jumping-around music of this decade. When he's behind the drums, he doesn't reverse that flow and do the same for TDW. This will get better with practice. Right now it's an issue. Oh, and I was behind Alison, looking towards Dean, and I could see they aren't actually close enough to drink beer out of each other's mouths as they sing. His guitar solo, which he made look effortless, was a stone cold killer.

Verdict? They're better than 95% of bands. But then again, pace Sturgeon's Law, most bands are better than 95% of bands. Did I enjoy myself? Fuckin' A.

They're not doing themselves any favors by avoiding their best instruments. Yes, restrictions produce better art blah blah but equally one can argue that virtuosos produce better art too. Dean's guitar playing was always good, rarely great. His keyboard work is better. Jack's drumming is competent. Turning the band around to put Jack on lead guitar and LJ on drums produced a notable improvement, so that tells you something. Either way, The Dead Weather is hard to dance to.

Alison's vocals are a stand out. She has a powerful presence that knocked the men in the audience for six and did a number on the women (including me). She's got star quality and if time anneals the rhythm section, I think The Dead Weather has it made.

As I was walking back to the parking lot, I heard a guy lean out of a cab and shout to a pedestrian, "I just saw The Dead Weather!" The man asked, "How were they?" and taxi man said, "Awesome! Better than the Raconteurs!"

No torrent that I know of but here is an mp3 download of the show.

Set list was (from the NME)

'60 Feet Tall'
'Treat Me Like Your Mother'
'Bone House'
'You Just Can't Win'
'So Far From Your Weapon'
'Child of a Few Hours'
'Rocking Horse'
'I Cut Like a Buffalo'
'No Hassle Night'
'Will There Be Enough Water'
'Forever My Queen'
'Hang You From The Heavens'
'New Pony'

1 comment:

mallark said...

Those of us who live a million miles away from anything like this thank you for taking us along on your wild night. Your handwriting was is so vivid,my ears are ringing sympathetically.

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