Walk into the Cactus Club and you’ll see a silk-screened 12” record created by Milwaukee artist Von Munz promoting The White Stripes’ first out-of-state show, November 13, 1999, in which they opened for The Mistreaters. In the ensuing 15 years (!), The White Stripes became one of the biggest bands of their generation, released a handful of stone-cold-classic albums, and broke up. Meg White all but disappeared, and Jack White became a vinyl-obsessed superstar. Fast-forward to last night: If you managed to get to The Rave early, you may have picked up another silk-screened Von Munz creation, this one a poster promoting Jack White’s highly anticipated show at the less-than-beloved downtown venue. The fact that the same local artist behind the Cactus record had designed White’s current poster was great; the fact that White was playing The Rave, of all places, was not.
When the Jack White show was announced earlier this year, there was a fair amount of grumbling: Why wasn’t this a Pabst/Turner/Riverside show? Wouldn’t it be a good candidate for the underused BMO Harris Pavilion? The Rave? Barf. Logistically, however, it was a show that likely had to be at The Rave. White is too big for the cozy confines of a place like Turner Hall, but not quite big enough for, say, the BMO Harris Bradley Center. And besides, his raucous, noisy, crowd-pleasing set would be a poor fit for a seated show at the Pabst or Riverside. So Jack White played a sold-out show at a scuzzy, sweaty, shitty-sounding, overpriced venue that has all the charm (and acoustics) of a Supermax prison. Who cares? It was awesome.
Following an agreeably ragged set of punk-infused blues from Benjamin Booker (and a heavily applauded plea for no cell phone use during the show), the dapperly dressed White and his four-piece band took to the stage in a sudden burst of noise, opening with the taunting “Icky Thump.” From there, White scorched through new songs (Lazaretto standouts “Just One Drink” and “Alone In My Home”), White Stripes favorites (“Hotel Yorba”), and even material from his various side-projects (The Raconteurs’ “Steady, As She Goes,” The Dead Weather’s “I Cut Like A Buffalo”). Some unknown technical gaffes plagued the first 20 minutes of the set and left White visibly frustrated, though he managed to soldier on despite the on-stage issues and The Rave’s overall god-awful sound. (His between-song banter was all but incomprehensible. Happily, a dedication to the Cactus Club registered nicely.)
Beyond the songs, there was much to admire in White’s two-hour set. Far from the humorless boor he’s often portrayed as in the media, his stage presence was energetic and perfectly outsized. Rock moves were displayed. He wasn’t ashamed to let the crowd take over for a bit in songs like “Hotel Yorba.” At one point, he stood with his arms crossed and simply basked in the applause. Singer and fiddle player Lillie Mae Rische was excellent. A cover of a “lost” Hank Williams song, “You Know That I Know,” was terrific. There was a shocking amount of dry-humping and bro-dancing (so much air drumming!) in the crowd. Everyone was enjoying themselves, $9 beers and stifling heat be damned. The cell phone ban was mostly heeded.
Then there was the encore. After long minutes of ear-shattering screaming and foot stomping, White returned to the stage decked out in a simple black t-shirt. The look was straight out of the early White Stripes days, and his choice to re-open with “Fell In Love With A Girl” and close with “Seven Nation Army” only solidified the retro illusion. It was a perfect, powerful, and strangely poignant way to end the night. Back in 1999, White played his first out-of-state show in a small Milwaukee club; 15 years later (!), he lived up to his hard-earned title as a generation’s unlikely rock star. Even The Rave couldn’t hold him back.