A curious thing happened last Thursday when I bought a $2 water bottle at the Santa Barbara Bowl: The vendor removed the cap, threw it away and handed me a now-decapitated bottle of Dasani. As I started complaining, he explained how “the band” worried that the audience might throw caps at them. This was not an encouraging beginning to the Raconteurs’ show.
If Jack White’s other band, the White Stripes, was scheduled to perform, I wouldn’t have been as confused about the cap-throwing concerns. The White Stripes’ songs like “Fell in Love With a Girl” and “Seven Nation Army” have had me hooked at first listen, but these super-infectious songs tend to grow tiresome after awhile. If I stumble across a White Stripes song on the radio, it is usually impossible to tell how much longer it will last, because every part sounds the same.
In forming the Raconteurs, White seemed to give more careful consideration to what his songs would sound like after being mercilessly overplayed on the radio. Like the White Stripes, the Raconteurs also blend older genres such as the blues, folk, classic rock and country with modern garage rock. But thanks in part to the three band members in addition to White, the Raconteurs’ songs are much less repetitive.
“Steady, as She Goes,” the Raconteurs’ most popular hit, is catchy by band-member cooperation, not guitar domination. No single instrument is solely responsible for providing the melody. During their show at the Bowl, the Raconteurs asserted their supremacy over the White Stripes with a dynamic rendition of the song, but this burst of energy arrived a little too late.
The Kills opened the night, and my friend and I agreed that singer Alison “VV” Mosshart sounds like a less rambunctious version of Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Unfortunately, the prerecorded percussion drowned out her voice out.
On the duo’s studio albums, the synthesizers and drum machines blend seamlessly with the guitar to create danceable electro-rock. But live at the Bowl, it just sounded like an actual drummer forgot to show up, and then someone else turned the volume on his electronic replacement into high gear. Thus, despite the band’s best efforts, there was no dancing to be seen in the audience.
I didn’t spot very many dancers for the majority of the Raconteurs’ set either, but then again, the Raconteurs’ songs aren’t quite made for dancing – or even for singing along with – unless you’ve been working on your subtle Southern accent.
The band opened its set with the rock ‘n’ roll song, “Consolers of the Lonely,” then boldly followed it with the slow and moody “Blue Veins.” With bluesy organ playing and dark blue lights shining on stage, this rendition of the song was less about rocking out and more about creating an atmosphere. What Jack White lacks in sincerity he makes up for with cool, rock-star bravado, but he sang the down-tempo tune with an understated sadness in his usually stylized singing voice.
Brendan Benson is White’s more genuine counterpart, evidenced in both his cleaner vocal style and his less showy onstage persona. He shyly said that he “wasn’t sure” if the Raconteurs had played at Santa Barbara before, whereas White cockily addressed the city like it was an old groupie he had tossed away. He asked how Santa Barbara had been since the last time he was here, and he explained that he wasn’t feeling well after getting punched in the stomach the previous evening, but that he would try his best to make it through the show.
White seemed healthy enough as he went back and forth from the organ, guitar and piano, at one point pounding down on a piano key so fast that it sounded like it was in a vibration mode. The experimentation was engaging at first, but it devolved into a banal jam session. One girl a few rows ahead of me tried her best to find ways to groove to the music, but most of the nearby attendees were in the same position as I was: slumped over in their seats. We screamed for an encore as technicians took the equipment away, but the screams were less out of excitement and more out of genuine worry that the band was just feeling too lazy to play any more songs.
But the quartet eventually did return to the stage, and it turned out that Benson and White had been reserving most of their energy for the encore. As Benson sang “Many Shades of Black” like a broken-hearted country star, people put their arms around each other and swayed to the beat. In “Steady, as She Goes,” the band’s restrained guitar playing allowed every instrument to be heard, but the guitars’ stadium-friendly release during the chorus catapulted the audience to its feet.
This performance of “Steady, as She Goes” showcased a perfect balance of catchiness and richly textured, complex melodies that the White Stripes’ music lacks. If the Raconteurs had only achieved this balance in their earlier, completely catch-free jam sessions, maybe I wouldn’t have had to keep checking my feet to avoid kicking over the open water bottle.