Back in 2002, The White Stripes were considered one of the most exciting bands on the planet. Now, seven years after their demise, their leader has become predictable and boring. As much as he would probably like to think he is, Jack White is not an innovator. He is a musician past his prime and his set headlining New York’s Governors Ball festival only serves to reinforce that.
The show begins with a clock sat above a recording console counting down the minutes until White will appear on stage. At various points he appears on the video, changing the time remaining with a flick of his hands, or peering into the camera and, thus, out at the audience. When the clock hits zero, blue light bathes the stage and his band enter to ‘Nightmare’ by Artie Shaw – a jazz piece from the 1930s. It is exactly what you would expect from a man renowned for a fondness of a bygone age.
He sets the tone for the night with a brief burst of jammed riffing before ripping into recent single ‘Over And Over And Over’. The set is punctuated by moments like this – drawn out wanderings around his fretboard that constantly fortify the notion that the Detroit musician could probably nail the most complicated guitar solo in existence in his sleep. Any sense of awe around that, though, wears thin quickly.
It doesn’t take long for a White Stripes classic to pop up. ‘Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground’ is one of the highlights of a meandering 90 minutes, where over half the setlist is culled from the catalogue of the band that brought White to fame, and his supergroup side project The Raconteurs‘. It’s a thrill to hear those older songs live again, but it should be worrying to their creator that tracks that are at least 11 years old – some older – vastly outshine his new material.
The most interesting moments in the night come not when White is weaving out complex solos, but rather when he has his hands off of his guitar. For the first half of ‘We Are Gonna Be Friends’, he swings his acoustic round to his back and displays a vulnerability that’s never really associated with him. He looks like he has no idea what to do with his hands, fiddling with his big, square belt buckle, uncomfortably fidgeting with his two microphone stands, messing up his hair and back again. It’s an intriguing antidote to tracks like ‘Ice Station Zebra’ and ‘Connected By Love’ that leave you cold. For a man so influenced by blues – a genre built on emotion – it’s strange how little feeling he manages to put into his music.
“You want me to play a couple more songs or do you want me to stop now?” he asks the underwhelmingly small crowd after ‘Steady As She Goes’. It’s a classic bit of showmanship, but his next words give the trick a smug tinge. “You want me to stay?” he asks when his fans indicate they’re ready for more. “Little old me?”
And so things continue, a mesh of dreary blues-rock and glimmers of goodness. On ‘Icky Thump’, he and his band become the opposite to that unsure character of earlier. The 2007 song sounds like a battle march – even more so when White changes the lyrics to call out Trump. It’s followed by closer ‘Seven Nation Army’ – predictably the best-received song of the night. Even that, he drags out unnecessarily, but you can’t really blame him for milking it when its the most animated the audience has been all night. It’s an explosive end to an otherwise muted set and a reminder that, once upon a time, Jack White was full of thrills.