Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jack White in the Bleacher Theater

We've all been very impressed by Jack White's last few records, and we were just saying that we had to go see him next time he came to town when ... we found out he was coming to town.  And not only that, but he was going to play the "Bleacher Theater" at Fenway.  For this they set up a stage on the visitor bullpen and open 6 or so sections of the bleachers and the grandstand.  We got tickets in row 40 of section 42 ... great angle but we would have liked to be about half that many rows up.  Oh well ... we were going to see Jack White at Fenway and were very excited!

The environs of Fenway were a madhouse as soon as I pulled off of Park Drive at about 5:15 and I was just able to get a spot in a corner of a closed-off Van Ness Street and a grid-locked Ipswich Street.  We met for dinner at Yard House on Brookline; good salads and great beer selection.  Then we boogied down to entrance C, paid an outrageous price for ballpark beer, and climbed up to our seats.  I was three rows directly behind the Ted Williams seat.

Olivia Jean opened at 6:30 and played some incredibly gnarly guitar and some great songs (including a cover of Shocking Blue's I'm Your Venus).  He band was fantastic too, and it was a beautiful setting, with the huge stage almost covering the vistor bullpen and the home bullpen invisible under all the trailers and out-buildings a real rock show requires.  The sun had about set by the time Olivia's act ended, and the bleachers were almost full soon after that.

It was such a fun concert for so many reasons, the drama, the song selection, the setting, the musical performances, the crowd, the stage set, and just about everything.  Take a look at the pictures on Jack's site (click on 2014-09-17, Fenway).  And I'll add some more specifics later ... have to get ready for Freshgrass!

Here's the setlist:

Just One Drink
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
High Ball Stepper
Hotel Yorba
Temporary Ground
I Cut Like a Buffalo
Top Yourself
Alone in My Home
John the Revelator (Blind Willie Johnson)
Rambling Man (Hank  Williams)
You Know That I Know (Hank Williams)
You Don't Know What Love Is
We're Going to Be Friends
Ballad of Hollis Brown (Bob Dylan)
Ball and a Biscuit

Icky Thump
Steady, As She Goes
Freedom at 21
Sixteen Saltines
The Hardest Button to Button
That Black Bat Licorice
Would You Fight for My Love?
Hello Operator
Seven Nation Army

OK, more details!

Jack played with the fantastic band he's been touring with lately, Lillie Mae Rische, Fats Kaplin, Daru Jones, Dominic Davis, and Ikey Owens.  They were introduced individually like they were baseball players, emerging from the little door in the left field scoreboard and running across the field to the stage.

Davis played the first half of the set on an electric, then switched to a chromed stand-up bass, that sounded excellent.  Fats did not play the theremin he had on stage, but played everything else: mainly pedal steel but also mandolin, fiddle, and who knows what, while wearing a suit and sporting a Fu Manchu.  Jones had his kit set up to the left of the stage and was an animal, pounding away with an energy we couldn't believe.  Owens wailed on the organ and also played the delicate piano parts that make Jack's recent songs so outstanding.

 And Lillie Mae was everything I'd anticipated too.  She sang the soulful backup, ripped off the searing fiddle runs, and looked really cool!  Jack jumped over to her mike and screamed into it with her on the choruses.  Fats picked up his fiddle at times and those two played unison swing to back up and take over some songs, while Jack watched them critically.

My favorite part of the show was when Jack marched over to the stand-up piano with a serious look on his face, slung his guitar back over his side, strummed a chord on the strings, and then started pounding away on the keys, staring downwards.  After a few bars he screamed, "Tell me who's that writing?" and then answered himself in the same breath, "John the Revelator!!!"  He sang a few rounds of that great traditional song, and then took us away with him on the piano, up and up and up.  Until finally he started crooning: "I love you baby, but you gotta understand, when the Lord made me he made a rambling man."  This was soulful Hank Williams on his birthday; this was roots music wailed into the Fenway Park night.  Jack did a shout-out to the great Hank after Ramblin' Man, and then did You Know That I Know as well.

So many songs had me almost giggling with delight.  He covered an obscure Dylan song.  He did You Don't Know What Love Is, which was the song I really wanted to hear but never expected him to play.  He did the great duets with Lillie, Temporary Ground and Alone In My Home.  He did I Cut Like a Buffalo, perhaps the best song from his brief Dead Weather foray.  And then he did Ball and a Biscuit, a song I love but really, really, never expected him to play.

We were ready for it to get cold, as it often does on a late summer Fenway night when the wind picks up.  But the temperature didn't really drop and the crowd was thick and writhing.  It was so comfortable in the bleachers, both environmentally and psychologically.  Almost all of the people were there to see the genius play, and we almost all knew the songs and were hanging on every note.  The 10% who were just there for a rock show were kind of freaked out by us fanatics, almost like at a Grateful Dead concert.

And I have to mention how fantastic the production was, because that's what really took the experience over the top.  The "bleacher theater" idea worked wonderfully, at least for the section we were in.  The sound was perfect.  They had rigged lights all over, but chiefly in three large light boxes that swiveled high over the stage.  They opened the curtains behind the stage, and the background was the beautiful greensward of Fenway.  They had pixel-perfect video screens to the left and right at our eye level (40th row), and though we could see the musicians fine I found myself watching the screens at times.  The camera work from the robots on stage and the telescoping lenses near the soundboard (one section directly to our right) was incredible, and they had two separate feeds on the two screens.

They played a long set and then bounced off stage.  We knew they were coming back for an encore, but what I wasn't ready for was a fucking 9 song encore!!!  This was really a second set.  They opened with Icky Thump for Dog's sake and did Freedom At 21 and That Black Bat Licorice.  We were just rolling with delight and laughing in ecstasy.  Finally they were done, and Jack regaled the crowd with his appreciation of our appreciation.  Beyond everything, this was a case of a musician letting it all hang out and walking that fine line, having it work totally, and feeding off the raves of the crowd.  This was a lot of fun for everybody.

Took a while for the bleachers to empty, but we and the people around us had nothing to complain about.  We'd just shared an incredible auditory and visual experience and wanted to keep it in our minds as long as we could.  Finally got out of there and it was just a few hundred feet to where I'd parked.  We were gone into the night but I think I'll remember Jack White at Fenway Park longer than a lot of things!

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