Thursday, 25 June 2009

Dead Weather and Smoke Fairies at HMV Forum 24 June 2009

Some Dead Weather, yesterday. (Photo Jane Wiggins)

Jack White is a musician who has joined the pantheon of rock gods in a remarkably short period of time. The White Stripes were little known outside of the Detroit music scene until as recently as 2002, when their White Blood Cells album propelled them into the wider public consciousness. In the intervening years Jack has parlayed his phenomenal guitar playing and slightly weird Johnny-Depp-in-a-Tim Burton film appearance into a seat at the top table, feted by the likes of Bob Dylan as an equal, with plenty of others in the industry keen to touch the hem of his garment.

He’s always been a collaborator, playing a variety of instruments in a number of different outfits, just happy to be playing. However, when you are rock royalty, even the slightest of side projects can become amplified into something large and ungainly.

Tonight we are here to see the latest collection of musicians with whom White is amusing himself. Calling themselves The Dead Weather, the selling point here is that White has mostly reverted to playing drums, as he often used to in the pre-White Stripes days, and enlisted Allison Mosshart of The Kills to be the vocal and visual focus. Also along for the ride are Dean Fertita who usually plays with Queens Of The Stone Age and bassist Jack Lawrence who looks like an accountant in a hippie wig and is an old White pal from The Raconteurs.

Before the main event, the warm up. Jack White comes onstage to personally introduce Smoke Fairies, who have risen in the rankings since I last saw them when they were supporting Battlekat and The Fighting Cocks at Nambucca a few years ago. Since then, the core duo of Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire has been augmented by a stick-thin fiddle player and a drummer.

The girls’ glorious Appalachian folk harmonies are the same as ever they were and now we are living in a post-Fleet Foxes world, the band are getting the attention that they deserve. However, although the crowd are initially hushed, the lack of any real stand-out songs causes concentration to wander and the end of the Smoke Fairies’ set is largely drowned out by the hubbub of anticipation for the headliners.

Performing in front of an enormous coat of arms, The Dead Weather are preposterous. This is bombastic, bullying blues rock of elephantine proportions. Your tolerance for this kind of thing is probably determined by your reaction to what I regard as a touchstone record – ‘All Right Now” by Free. If you like that, then The Dead Weather will be right up your street, if you don’t, then you are in for a long evening.

Allison Mosshart is all hair and twitches, shaking and nodding her head at approval of every note, every guitar lick or drum break. She growls and wails. Every gesture is magnified for people at the back of the hall, every stamp of the feet a proclamation that THIS IS REAL ROCK, GODDAMMIT. It’s every cliché in the book.

It’s a brutish set, loud and dumb. The band are enjoying themselves enormously and the crowd do too, even if by dint of being battered into submission. It’s an impressive, unapologetically thick-ear spectacle.

Relief is at hand on the occasions when Jack White does more than thump the drums. Still seated, he sings “You Just Can’t Win”, which I think may be a Van Morrison song. His falsetto vocal is a welcome contrast from Mosshart’s ‘whoah’s’ and ‘yeahs’.

The high point of the evening comes at the end of the main set, when White finally straps on his guitar and shows us what we have been missing. His duet with Mosshart on “Will There Be Enough Water?” is electrifying, the two of them fighting to share the same microphone.

The Dead Weather are not clever, but they sure are big and brash and will do well on this summer’s festival circuit. Jack White’s golden touch remains for now, even though this band feels like an indulgence rather than a long term project.

But hell, even Bob Dylan played with the Travelling Wilburys.

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