... or rock 'n' roll's phones, anyway, when The Raconteurs played The Fillmore recently.
To be fair, I’ve never loved Jack White. There have been times when I had to pay attention because he was part of the story of the moment, but that hasn’t been the case since the start of the decade when he seemed energized by his collaborations with Alison Mosshart in The Dead Weather and Brendan Benson in The Raconteurs, and they led to Blunderbuss, his first solo album. He was someone who made sense in the documentary It Might Get Loud with Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge, and he worked to get edgy roots music voices into the marketplace with Third Man Records.
I saw his exacting nature at a listening party at Third Man in Nashville, where he showed off the then-new limited edition Paramount Records box set that the label released in conjunction with Revenant Records. It's a massive project with eight vinyl albums and an additional 800-song thumb drive housed in a metal sleeve made to resemble to the stylus-holding part of a Victrola's tone arm, all housed in a wooden box made of oak. A DJ wearing white gloves placed the gold and black marbled vinyl albums on a turntable to play them, carefully handling each disc by the sides when he flipped them over. The package was a beautiful object, and a few dozen people were allowed to admire it and the two books included in it while drinking a designer cocktail prepared by a bartender who, like all the other Third Man employees that afternoon including White himself, wore a dark suit.
That bordered on persnickety, and when Neil Young released A Letter Home, recorded in a Voice-o-Graph booth owned by Jack White, my first response was Of course. Of course White would have a piece of antique technology that recorded a performance immediately to vinyl and buys into the first-thought-best-thought rock ’n’ roll myth, and of course Young would want to record in it. And of course White would find common cause with Young, who’s spending the autumn years of his career fighting back the 21st century. Young’s sad foray into Pono (the Hawaiian word for "righteousness"!) felt like a Woodstock Generation solution to a problem as he in effect decreed that he’d go a different direction from other digital music providers and assumed the rightness of his cause would win the day. Never mind that his audience wasn’t the mp3 demographic, or that there were maybe hundreds of albums available in the Pono format, none of which were by artists that motivated the mp3 audience. He asked people who had a flat smart phone that fit easily into their pockets, purses, and lives to also buy another player that is a single-purpose technology shaped inconveniently like a Toblerone.
The Voice-o-Graph was Jack White’s kind of technology—romantic, rare, and old-tymey..His enemy is the more democratic iPhone, which puts a number of tools including a camera in people’s pockets. When he played New Orleans in 2014 after the release of Lazaretto, he sent someone from his crew onstage to ask fans not to take pictures and told them that they could download photos from the show the next day on his website. He did this for the entire tour, and at least at the Saenger Theatre, the audience was so in love with White that it largely respected his wishes. I saw few phones pop up during the show, and those that did grabbed a quick picture and dropped back down out of sight, even though downloaded photos don’t have the same emotional resonance. They might be really good photos of the show, but they’re not your photos of the show. A bad video shot at a concert might look and sound like shit, but it captures the POV of the person who shot it, and his or her memory cleans up the sound and tweaks the video. Photos and videos have become the new tour T-shirts—evidence and souvenirs from shows, and in some cases, part of an effort to share fans’ love of the artist. White’s issues with them are understandable, but taking a stance in opposition to your fans is never a good look.
The guy who requested that people not shoot photos made the request so that the audience could be in the moment. That presumed to know how the audience experienced the show and assumed that if people were texting or tweeting, they somehow were missing the very loud and dramatically lit show by an artist they love playing songs they like right in front of them. If a band with all the attention-getting tools at its disposal loses a fan to his or her phone, it’s the artist’s fault, not the phone’s. And in my experience, those online communications were the things you’d say to the person next to you anyway, frequently about how great the show is. The crew member delivered what felt like White’s rationale for his need to control than the experience like he controlled the Paramount box set roll out; any concern for the audience’s enjoyment was secondary.
Thursday night when White and The Raconteurs played The Fillmore, not only could fans not take photos but they couldn’t use their phones at all. They had to be locked in big, padded phone coozies before ticket holders were allowed into the venue, and those fans had to stuff the phone coozies in their pockets at the show. In the years since 2014, White’s commercial stock has plateaued. When The Raconteurs released Help Us Stranger in June, my Facebook and Twitter feeds missed the occasion entirely, with no one raving about it or asking others if they’d heard it yet. Perhaps because of that, Thursday night’s show didn’t look like a sell out. Admittedly, The Raconteurs are the White project that least reflects his musical sensibilities, but in 2011 they headlined Voodoo’s Sunday night.
Musically, I’m sure The Raconteurs are still fine, but I didn’t stay to find out. I was more interested in Jidenna’s smart African-influenced hip-hop/R&B/pop at the House of Blues than a salute to the glory days of classic rock so I freed my phone from its coozie and left after seeing King James and the Special Men bold opening set. I’m sure I would have enjoyed The Raconteurs if I had stayed, but the phone and photo issues—like the Third Man suits—made the event feel like we were being asked to conform to White’s needs. White believes in a wild spirit in the creation of his music, but he’s not as fond of the way it crops up in the way people consume it. His efforts to control how we listen to his music mirror those of high school principals in teen rebellion movies from the 1950s who are fighting the kids who just want to be free. The principals only want what’s best for the kids, but they seem dated as they miss the realities of the young people’s lives. On Thursday night, locking up fans’ phones was a controlling gesture that seemed at odds with the rock ’n’ roll spirit White works so hard to embody.