"It's a pretty dandy place, isn't it?" Karen Elson asked Monday from the stage at Third Man Records, the multi-purpose Nashville outpost for her husband Jack White's label. Just a song into the hometown release celebration for her debut album, The Ghost Who Walks, she welcomed the snugly packed hundred or so well-wishers with shy grins and demure giggles.
Barely three weeks before, White showed off a new album from his band The Dead Weather on the same stage. "Welcome to my house," he half-growled, all hyper-confidence and swagger.
They're a different brand of host, those two, and a different brand of musician, too, Elson evoking as much elegance on stage as White does abandon. But if her background - as a model, and a mom - has left some folks wondering whether she really earns her own key to the house that Jack White built, the answer, as evidenced on Monday night: certainly.
Nods to her husband are inevitable, particularly since he produced and played on The Ghost Who Walks. But Elson has her own style, reserved and composed, her floor-length peach dress fluttering as she circled her hips to the backbeat, eyeing her audience half-lidded. She and the rest of her band kept largely still, in line with Ghost's stately sound - but she's every bit the singer.
"Here she comes, it's killing time," Elson sang on "The Truth Is In The Dirt," her voice arcing clean and clear over her band's accompaniment, which live came off more sultry and jazzy than the ominous, intermittently explosive recorded version.
The album mixes throwback country and chamber-pop tones, and on stage, Elson's voice can evoke some of country's most effective belters, from Patsy Cline to Neko Case. She didn't start the show like the most confident, comfortable live performer, but by its encore she'd settled in, delivering Ghost's title tale of a murderous lover alone with her guitar, laying an incongruous but affecting sensuality into its "under the moonlight" refrain.
Her live band set out an inviting bed of mood - keening fiddles, moaning organ, and blues guitar leads - over the hour-long set that included a few well-placed covers (Donovan's "Season of the Witch" was one). And that mood fit well in the venue, all ornate wood doors and bronze sconces and venue-spanning oriental rugs.
Elson's husband himself kept to the shadows Monday, though, sneaking in and out quietly and holding up a far wall while he watched. The crowd held its share of other bold Nashville names - fellow knockout redhead Nicole Kidman, who, along with country star husband Keith Urban, smiled and head-nodded through to the encore.
But eyes and ears stuck attentively to the band and Elson, whose shoulders seemed more than sturdy enough to hold up under the weight of expectation.