The sheer quality of their album Broken Boy Soldiers proved The Raconteurs are no over-inflated super-group, or self-indulgent side-project. The clash of Jack White’s garage blues and Brendan Benson’s power pop, backed by the Greenhornes’ rhythm section, worked unexpectedly well. But can they hack it on stage? By the end of their 75-minute set there could have been few doubters: they sounded like a band who had playing together for years, but who still had plenty of fire in the belly.
Bigbang warmed up the audience nicely for 45 minutes. An Oslo band relocated to LA doesn’t sound particularly promising, but the three-piece (whose debut 1995 studio album Poetic Terrorism has just been released in the UK) have genuine potential. With catchy songs like From Acid to Zen B and Back Again, their brand of alternative folk rock, all jangly guitars and chilled out vocal harmonies, is reminiscent of The Byrds and early REM. But as a live band they need to avoid the temptation of beefing up their sound merely to conform with bog-standard US rock regulations, and just keep it cool.
You certainly couldn’t say The Raconteurs are formulaic. They burst on stage in a buzz of manic movement, with Benson taking lead vocals and White lead guitar on the first song, Intimate Secretary. This set the pattern of alternating lead vocals and guitar throughout the gig, with Benson’s more reflective, mellifluous influence blending nicely with White’s raucous physicality and primal screaming. Although honours are shared in this meticulously equal collaboration, White has by far the more potent stage presence. Dressed all in black, with spiky black hair, his brawny figure has an elemental energy that pumps up the crowd.
Near the start, the two mates from Detroit lock antlers in a display of mock machismo, but there’s tons of testosterone flying around here. Just like comedians tend to be bluer live than they are on TV, rock bands tend to be heavier live than recorded, but sometimes you wished the guys would vary the volume more. Nothing wrong with power rock, of course, but sometimes it felt as if we were missing out on the subtleties of their multi-faceted album – though it was certainly more complex than a White Stripes show.
As the album has only ten songs and lasts just over half an hour, the band play several cover songs, including an extraordinarily demented and almost unrecognizable version of Sonny and Cher’s Bang Bang. Predictably, the biggest cheers are reserved for their stunning hit single Steady As She Goes, though songs like the beautifully warm Together and current single Broken Boy Soldier’s psychedelic stomp also go down very well. They go off-stage after only 45 minutes, but return to play a half-hour encore, ending, as the album does, with the slowly mesmerizing Blue Veins.
It may be that White’s wild spirit predominated overall, but at the end Benson himself made quite an impact – literally – as he dived into the front-line punters in time-honoured fashion, emerging with his shirt torn from his back. It’s good to know that even the more sophisticated rock musicians can’t totally avoid falling into the old rock clichs from time to time.