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Jack White - Live at Third Man Records ||| Nashville & Cass Corridor Music Album Reviews

Released through Third Man’s record club, Jack White’s 3xLP live set takes some of his knotty, obtuse songs from this year’s Boarding House Reach and lets them breathe on stage.

Earlier this year, Boarding House Reach became Jack White’s third solo album to reach the top of the Billboard 200. Its speedy sequel Live in Nashville ||| Live in Detroit won’t even reach the charts but that’s by design. The triple-record set belongs to an exclusive club, the Vault of Third Man Records, the label White launched in 2001. Live in Nashville ||| Live in Detroit is the 37th release in this limited-edition, subscription-only series, following the celebrated 36th installment—a splashy vinyl-only reissue of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica—by a matter of months.

Servicing Jack White fans with live souvenirs of recent gigs is a fairly common practice for the Third Man Vault, but this particular release sequence is noteworthy. Trout Mask Replica was the first time the Vault dipped its toe into reissuing an artist outside of the Third Man empire and as it was the first vinyl repressing of a celebrated classic in nearly a decade, it brought eyes to a club that was previously the province of White diehards. And Boarding House Reach—with its 37,000 copies sold on vinyl, the largest number of any album released in 2018—underscored just how many diehards there are in the United States and, just as importantly, these figures hint at how White fans embrace the same philosophy as the rocker: They’re fighting to preserve old-fashioned ways.

Boarding House Reach notably found White battling this instinct within himself. He recorded most of the album on his lonesome, letting himself indulge in stiff funk workouts, operatic prog, and obtuse poetry. Live in Nashville ||| Live in Detroit explodes through his self-imposed confines through the simple act of transferring these experiments to stage in collaboration with a new touring band. Not all the players in the current group are new to White’s world—the rhythm section of drummer Carla Azar and bassist Dominic Davis supported him during the tour for 2012’s Blunderbuss, albeit in two different bands—but a fresh lineup energizes White, letting him squall and lurch as he fiddles with old White Stripes tunes and puzzles-out translating his recent fever dreams for an audience.

By definition, the crowds at these two concerts—one held at Third Man Records Nashville at March 16, the other a private show at Third Man Records Detroit on April 18, the day before he played the town’s “pizza arena,” Jack’s winking name for Detroit’s Little Caesar Arena—are very different than Live at Bonnaroo 2014, the last full-band live record he released. That was a set designed to thrill a festival, but the audiences here are subscribers to the Vault, ready to hear White in an intimate setting. To his credit, White decided to skimp on familiar songs—“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” is the only White Stripes hit to appear on both sets; the much longer Nashville LP finds space for a twisted “Fell in Love With a Girl,” a full-throttle “Hello Operator” and a valedictory “Seven Nation Army”—in favor of finding out what makes his new songs tick.

Especially when heard in contrast to the leaner Stripes tunes, the new material seems ornate. But instead of wrestling the weirder new songs to the ground, White peppers his older tunes with squalls emanating from his throat and guitar. He lurches forward, trying to push himself into the future. Compared to Boarding House Reach, which wore its self-styled weirdness as a badge of honor, these modern overtures are subtle but they’re apparent, particularly as he threads his art-and-R&B inclinations with lashing guitar. While some of the songs still seem a bit ungainly—draped in its Freddie Mercury harmonies, “Over and Over and Over” always collapses underneath its own weight—his generic exercises, such as the wannabe power ballad “Connected by Love,” gain definition through live collaboration.

More than the songs themselves, this instrumental interplay is the reason to listen to these two concerts. Like Boarding House Reach itself, Live in Nashville ||| Live in Detroit already feels like a document of a transitional period for White, a time when he’s pushing and prodding, attempting to redefine his sound without losing his signature. Although it is certainly of primary interest to the devoted, it’s a shame the set is only available to subscribers because it’s a more compelling listen than the studio set and the reason why is simple: Jack White is always at his best when he wrangling with other musicians.

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