I’ve never been the sort of person who keeps a mental list of the best gigs I’ve ever seen, but whenever I’m asked the question, my mind always wanders to one show in particular: The White Stripes at Mexico City’s Palacio de los Deportes, May 14, 2005. It was the second night of the ‘Get Behind Me Satan’ tour, which I’d been sent to cover by NME, and I remember it as a heady convergence of a band at the peak of their powers and a crowd at the absolute heights of frenzy. At the centre of it all was Jack White, with his pork-pie hat and pencil moustache, wresting the notes from his guitar like nothing I’d ever seen. Since then, whether with The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, or on his own, White has been one of the few performers I regard as truly unmissable. With many artists, especially once they reach the level of playing arenas, if you’ve seen one show, you’ve seen them all; with Jack White, no two are ever quite the same.
Which is why his decision to retire from playing live “for a long period of time” is so disappointing, even if in hindsight it’s not entirely surprising. From last year’s misinterpreted ‘joke’ about the Foo Fighters and their hidden guitarists, to the storm in a condiment bowl over his tour manager’s guacamole recipe, to his recent exhortation to the Coachella crowd to “put your cellphones away for five fucking seconds”, there’s a tetchiness that’s crept into White’s performances of late, which were previously characterised by mannered, enigmatic playfulness. I kind of understand it: from his perspective, it must be infuriating to put all that effort into staging a show (remember, this is a guy so invested in the details that even his road crew have a dress code), only for much of the audience to watch it unfold through an iPhone screen. I imagine it feels an awful lot like being taken for granted.
Then again, maybe that’s not it; maybe he just wants a break from the grind. He’s certainly entitled to one, having released 12 albums in 16 years, played countless shows in support of them and established an all-purpose record label and recording studio in his downtime. But Jack White belongs on the stage: he’s a born performer, someone who understands the innate artifice and theatricality of rock’n’roll, and one of its last true showmen. He doesn’t rely on props, or pyro, or backing dancers – he is his own spectacle, his own production, his own concept. I’ve seen many great gigs over the years, but that quality is a whole lot rarer than you’d think.
At this point, details of his ‘break’ from performance remain frustratingly vague: how long will it last? Does it mean we should expect less music over the coming years, or more? And what does it portend for The Dead Weather, who are supposed to be releasing a new album this year? Only Jack White knows the answer to those questions, and if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that he’ll always play his cards close to the chest.