I aged prematurely. Or festival crowds, always young, skewed dramatically moreso. Or New York-area music fans of legal drinking age realize there are more convenient places for both than Governors Ball. A rational explanation surely exists, though it’s hard to find elbowing through a sea of Top 40 fans munching free caramel M&Ms and sneaking pulls on forbidden vapes at the first of New York City’s competing pop megafestivals. (The Juul charging dock appears uniquely unsuited to outdoor applications.) I felt mildly dehydrated and throughly shriveled up.
Forgive me, then, for arriving late to Jack White’s headlining Friday set, because (in addition to the above) these days I am a Jack White skeptic, skeptical of his weird, abrasive new album Boarding House Reach, skeptical of his backward-looking obsessions as the last of the old-line rock stars, skeptical of his subscription club of superfans all building identical record collections. By headliner standards, White’s set was only modestly attended; maybe that’s what happens when you alienate rockists by appearing on the same day as Shawn Mendes and Post Malone, then split the indie audience by going up against James Blake—though apparently the crowd across the field wasn’t even paying attention. White at least commands a dedicated audience up front, but judging by ambient enthusiasm levels the slot should’ve gone to Post, and by next year it probably will.
What’s it like to see Jack White perform in 2018? Unfortunately, I found myself thinking about something Stereogum’s Tom Breihan wrote in response to Boarding House Reach: “Remember how Jack White used to write songs? He was so good at it.” It’s true: “Ice Station Zebra” live is a great reminder that there’s no world where Jack White makes for a passable rapper. When he switches to the newer material from the old, like the White Stripes’ “Hello Operator” or the Raconteurs’ “Steady as She Goes” (songs from 18 and 12 years ago, respectively), there’s a palpable diminishing. It’s not White the performer, who clearly relishes showmanship, or his band, who are working just as hard, or even the crowd reception—recent single “Connected by Love” got just a big a cheer as anything else. One feels forced to conclude that the material just isn’t the same quality, even if “Connected by Love,” in its bombastic, bloated way, expresses the archetypical theme of the I-love-to-go-to-music-festivals crowd. It seems Jack White has nothing else interesting to say, except to drop anti-Trump lines into “Icky Thump.” I even spotted someone wearing one of those “Icky Trump” t-shirts from before the election, one of many moments when White must have realized just how intensely people still care about his old band.
But we’re talking about a big-city festival, a preposterous phenomenon Jack White probably hates, a place where the music often seems least important. You came to get some sun and see something entertaining, and as humorless as his full-time schtick can seem, White still is. He stands front and center, surrounded by a semicircle of guitars like brooms in Fantasia. His playing is showy, with a kind of physicality that might be the only subtle thing about him left; he doesn’t hunch over, he doesn’t take breaks, he doesn’t smile. He delivers stage banter in the old-timey villain cadence of the Joker from the classic Batman TV show. His band sits elevated on a neon blue platform like big-band jazz players, and it dawns on you that the setup is a classic for a reason, that it’s a simple, aesthetic design that offers good sightlines to every musician. All the background videos are tinted blue, as though you’ve put on Boarding House-tinted glasses, and the graphics themselves are the same dystopian mid-budget CGI as the album cover and for the most part ugly as sin. It is unsettling and out of place, and yet “Seven Nation Army” still goes. Remember how Jack White used to write songs?