The Raconteurs Are Back Jack White, Brendan Benson & co. bring raucous shows to intimate venues
NEW YORK, NY — Some of the lucky concertgoers jammed into the postage-stamp-sized venue were hashtagging the show #roconteurs, but we can give them a pass for the misspelling. This audience was, after all, better versed in the White Stripes than in Old French, and in any case, it’s indisputable that The Raconteurs do rock. On Sunday afternoon (June 23), Detroit’s prodigal sons, led by Jack White and Brendan Benson, all but blew the roof off Coney Island Baby, the storied Lower East Side venue (fka Brownies, then HiFi).
A raconteur is a person skilled in telling colorful anecdotes, and it’s an apt name for the supergroup composed of White and Benson (who share duties on lead vocals and guitars), as well as Jack Lawrence (bass) and Patrick Keeler (drums). Lawrence and Keeler form The Greenhornes; White and Lawrence, along with Alison Mosshart (The Kills) and Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age), play as the Dead Weather. And White is, of course, he of the White Stripes and celebrated solo career. Between the four, there’s plenty of stories to be told.
After an 11-year break to focus on their other projects, the Raconteurs reunited for their third album, Help Us Stranger, which debuted this week at #1 on Billboard. While some critics fault the album for staying within the band’s comfort zone, there’s something to be said for songs that distill the essence of blues-rock and power pop traditions. The album kicks off with “Bored and Razed” (one of the songs performed in the band’s two-night stand on Colbert’s Late Show) — fierce and riff-heavy, it invites us to sink our teeth into the contrasting imagery of Benson’s California and White’s Detroit (note the sly wordplay on “born and raised”). That’s followed by the title track “Help Me Stranger” (more precisely, a singular form of the album title), which starts with a fuzzed-out, lo-fi country twang that then glitches like some old staticky VHS tape, propelling us into the percussive strut of the song.
There are little sonic surprises throughout, like in the cover of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” — “none of us in the band knew Brendan played harmonica!” White laughs when recalling that day in the studio. And “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” features a Fender B-Bender with its silvery, pedal steel-esque vibe. White’s guitar in “Sunday Driver” channels Small Faces or Humble Pie, and there’s an aching, plaintive quality to “Only Child,” a folk-tinged number penned by Benson. While the album doesn’t necessarily have a cohesive theme, each song shines on its own, with Benson’s brighter, Beatles-evoking aesthetic juxtaposed against White’s firing-on-all-cylinders garage rock.
There’s an easy synergy between the musicians, which Benson, speaking to Esquire, credits to the fact that each had established himself in other projects before coming together as the Raconteurs. As White puts it, “We don’t have any competition really, or that ego-tripping, going on.” That chemistry translates in the Raconteurs’ live shows (the four core Raconteurs plus one touring member, Dean Fertita, who does triple duty on keys, guitar, and tambourine). Benson and White trade lead vocals and guitars, handing off the melody — more like a relay race than a duel.
New York crowds aren’t known for being the most exuberant — there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the bands booked at the city’s many venues. But this string of small shows proved the exception (in addition to Coney Island Baby, the Raconteurs played Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right and Rough Trade). Most of the tickets for these New York City shows were distributed to loyal fans through White’s label, Third Man Records, and if there was any hope of snagging one on general sale, you were probably doing hand stretches to improve your point-and-click dexterity. (That is unless you’re Eddie Vedder’s family — the missus and the kids were tucked away in the VIP booth at Coney Island Baby, enthralled by the show.) The line started forming before 8am for the 3pm show, and the people packed into that approximate 180-cap space was one of the most invested crowds I’ve seen, sing-shouting along from the first line and applauding well past the encore in the hopes of just one more song.
“I thought for sure the police were gonna shut us down,” one of the venue’s owners confided in me after the show. It was a reasonable concern that the Raconteurs’ massive energy could not be contained in a tiny venue. Happily, the sheer number of bodies packed into Coney Island Baby acted as sound dampeners. Query, though, whether there was a lost & found for all the melted faces.
After the show, we ducked back into the green room, where the A/C was blasting and a cooler of kombucha, Red Bull, and wine awaited — a welcome repreive from the sweaty exuberance of the past hour-plus. I glanced around, hoping to spot the famous guacamole. There were no avocados in sight, but bowls of salsa, ranging in color from fiery red to subdued smoky chipotle, lined the counter. “You made these?” I asked, and the fellow behind the bar nodded. “Wait ohmygod are you Jack’s tour chef?” I blurted. He laughed. “No, but I’d totally take the job — can you put in a word for me?”
I wish I had the connections, I told him. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be part of these colorful tales?