It’s supposed to be music at its most spontaneous and exciting, but when you really stop and think about it, the experience of watching a band live can frequently follow a crushingly predictable pattern. After the excitement of the opening 10 minutes comes the comedown into content nodding and BlackBerry checking. Then it’s the inevitable mid-gig lull where dull album tracks afford everyone a chance to fill up at the bar or attempt to cop off with someone in the corner. And don’t forget the big finale of all the songs you’ve really been waiting for and the mid-encore dash out the door to beat the traffic.
It’s fair to say that the members of The Dead Weather have all had experience of running on this kind of touring treadmill and repeating a painfully tailored set night after night. Both guitarist Dean Fertita and bassist Jack Lawrence are the ever-dependable rocks in Queens Of The Stone Age and The Raconteurs respectively. Our old friend Jack White III has turned arenas upside down for the best part of a decade by bashing out ‘Hotel Yorba’ at just the right time. And Alison Mosshart has had so much pouting practice in The Kills that she probably goes to bed with her body wrapped around a mic stand and a smouldering fag in her mouth.
So, on paper, tonight’s show should be rock exhibitionism at its most rehearsed and professional. But as the newest supergroup in town walk out on the Bowery Ballroom stage tonight in front of the NYC rock cognoscenti (think: Zinner, Kessler, Koenig – and that’s just the balcony), The Dead Weather produce the kind of loose and licentious rock’n’roll gig that feels like it could go anywhere from song to song. And it’s exactly that which makes their arrival into the world so goddamned exciting – you can spot the nervous energy from the get-go. As they pound through the wonderfully sinister blues stomp of opener ‘60 Feet Tall’, White drums with all the clumsy enthusiasm of a 16-year-old who just got his first kit and as Mosshart paces the stage it seems to be more out of anxiousness than her usual strutting, rock’n’roll queen confidence. But the tension is a perfect backdrop for the music of ill-repute that comprises The Dead Weather’s upcoming debut ‘Horehound’. The thumping ‘Treat Me Like Your Mother’, for example, sounds like a lost collaboration between Led Zeppelin and Suicide.
As brutal as it is, it’s still the best bet they have for scoring a hit single providing the playlist makers can see past its unsettling oedipal undercurrents. Meanwhile, ‘Bone House’ uses an evil synth riff to effectively score a terrifying tale of obsession delivered through Mosshart’s maniacal images of dismemberment – “I built a house for your bones/I put your heart in a vault/That’s how I get the things I want”. No wonder they all look nervous, this is the sort of shit that could get you locked up. But the biggest appeal of this band is not so much what they do but what they might do, and just when we think we’ve got The Dead Weather all sussed out, they wilfully pitch curveballs that confuse everybody – not least themselves. The quartet have barely been onstage more than a quarter of an hour before they decide to knock out a version of ‘Outside’ by obscure ’60s beat-band The Downliners Sect as though they were still mucking about in a practice space in Nashville. At one point, a scheduled version of Gary Numan’s ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ is vetoed by Mosshart, who convinces her bandmates to throw some Van Morrison in the mix via a wobbly take on Them’s classic ‘You Just Can’t Win’.
Uncertain looks and questioning glances are exchanged across the stage but in their world, being so ad-hoc in their approach and changing the set on the hoof isn’t amateurish or sloppy, it’s just plain honest. In the flashy if regimented world of live music, The Dead Weather already seem like a rarity in that respect. If nothing else, it means making a beer run or remotely updating your Facebook status just isn’t an option.
Take your eyes off this lot for a second and you run the risk of missing something extraordinary. Sure enough, one such moment occurs when White teases the fans currently in White Stripes withdrawal by coming out from behind his kit to fire some trademark guitar solos in the closing ballard ‘Will There Be Enough Water’.
But Mosshart has worked too hard to be upstaged that easily and she wins the limelight back in the encore by injecting the raw throb of ‘Hang You From Heavens’ with one final shake of those snake-hips and more seedy lyrics, which this time hint at rough sex (hey, at least she’s on law-abiding ground with that one).
Let’s not kid ourselves about future future of the Dead Weather: Mosshart and White in particular have far too much going on to make the band a regular venture, but this may turn out to be the very thing that keeps them interesting in the long run. For if The Dead Weather succumbed to the all-too-common ‘same shit/different city’ routine and let their fans drift into the comfort zone, it would kill the volatility that makes them so thrillingly different from the norm.