White light, White heat
The first time The Spin saw Jack White, he was one-half of an act called The White Stripes, playing to hundreds packed like rotisserie chickens into The End. The first time The Spin saw the Alabama Shakes ... well, it was during an opening slot at White's Third Man Records during SoundLand. But the second time we saw them, they were playing to a fire marshal's nightmare of an audience at The Basement. Judging from the standing ovations and frank adoration both White and the Shakes received last Tuesday, in the first night of their two dates at The Ryman, they're not going back anytime soon.
The Spin (spoiler!) arrived so late in the opening set, we could have sworn we'd entered some kind of time portal where Big Brother and the Holding Company had shoved the Opry off the Ryman stage. No, it was just one last show-stopping number by the Shakes, who've polished the grunge influence off their material and given free rein to the '60s blues-rock underpinning Brittany Howard's orgiastic vocals. The audience was on its feet before she'd even finished her last note.
If the refined, road-tested Shakes are sounding less '91 Seattle and more '67 San Francisco these days, White's time machine seems to be burning its own wormhole. His straight-to-the-top album Blunderbuss is made up of songs that could pass for odds 'n' sods items from all of White's projects; curiously, their lack of a precise fit as either Stripes, Raconteurs or Dead Weather material is what makes the record cohere as a solo album. The mood in the packed house was crackling as the headliner and his band took the stage for the Stripes standard "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground." The audience stayed on its feet for two full sets (which did not include "Seven Nation Army," by the way — first nighters instead got a revved-up "Steady as She Goes" that came into its own as an arena anthem).
For his first night, White performed with his male backing band Los Buzzardos, saving female band The Peacocks for Wednesday evening. Comparison would no doubt be instructive, but it would be hard to top the combustible chemistry White has with wild-card drummer Daru Jones, with whom he spent much of the night engaging in matadorial taunts and lunges. (Jones beat such hell out of his kit that a drumhead had to be replaced and a snare fell over twice.)
Flanked by first-rate players including Nashvillians Cory Younts on mandolin and the great Fats Kaplin on fiddle (as well as the pedal steel you always knew shoulda been there on the joyously ramshackle "Hotel Yorba"), White delivered what amounted to a master class in rock stardom. He showed good humor, a willingness to ride the moment and an arsenal of nifty stage moves from petite Prince sidesteps to full-on head-banging rhino charge. And the spare but clever set sweated every small, telling detail, turning the "III" in White's adopted name into a surprisingly versatile visual motif.
In this context, songs that always struck The Spin as near-throwaways, like "Ball and Biscuit" and The Dead Weather's "I Cut Like a Buffalo," emerged as surprise knockouts. (The former closed the first set with one of White's most blazing air-raid siren solos of the night.) Nods to Howlin' Wolf, Hank Williams and Leadbelly came off as essential rather than obligatory. And with The Mars Volta's redoubtable Ikey Owens evoking everyone from Steve Nieve to Ian Stewart on keys, the whole night had a sound at once familiar, fresh and immediate — as if you were watching the classic rock of tomorrow minted today.
Dial M for 'Meh'
A very interesting thing happened to The Spin last Tuesday afternoon. Long story short, we coincidentally ran into a good friend who happens to be the biggest M83 fan we know. He's the kind of guy who owns all the obscure early B-sides and every 7-inch the French (or is it Spanish?) shoegazing pop band has ever released. So when we excitedly started a conversation about the evening's M83 show at Marathon Music Works, we were rather perplexed to learn that not only had he never seen the band he loved so much, but also that he had no plans to do so on this occasion. His reasoning? "I'm not going to see M83 live because I want to remain an M83 fan." It sounded silly and downright sad at the time. Turns out, as we were walking out of Marathon later that night, we kinda wished we had taken his advice.
The rock-solid dudes at the door were checking IDs hardcore, and marking the old-school giant black X's on the hands of those under 21 — something we hadn't seen since the days of 328 Performance Hall. Upon entering, we quickly realized why there was so much red tape at the door: There were lots of kids at this show. And by kids, we mean high-schoolers. Teenage melodrama and the innocence of adolescent puppy love have always been themes of M83 frontman and lyricist Anthony Gonzalez's work. So, upon reflection, we decided that the preponderance of J.Crew-clad young couples — drinking ice water and basking in the excitement of seeing what might be their first "concert" on a school night — seemed appropriate for an M83 show.
I Break Horses took the stage shortly after 9. The quartet had all the classic shoegaze bases covered: big, distorted guitar; an electronic drum kit; droney synths; and a barely audible girl singing low in the mix. And it was all issuing from amid a hazy, backlit, fog-filled stage. All we knew about I Break Horses going in was that, according to a friend, "they sound like M83." Turns out they did sound a lot like M83, if M83 was actually playing their instruments onstage. But more on that later. About halfway through IBH's set, we decided that this was material we'd have to check out when we got home.
M83 entered a spectrally lit stage and immediately filled the room with some slammin' synth-pop. Our first thought was, "We've never heard a four-piece band sound this huge." But by the time they started playing "Reunion," a song from last year's popular Hurry up, We're Dreaming, we noticed something wasn't right. We could hear a bass, but there was no bass player onstage. We heard electronic drums that definitely weren't coming from the drummer. We heard lush female background vocals but saw keyboardist/vocalist Morgan Kibby nowhere near a vocal mic. We heard layers of chorus guitars while Gonzalez was twiddling with knobs on his synths. So ... they were playing along with heavily programmed backing tracks.
Here's the thing: Plenty of awesome bands play with programmed tracks. If you go to see Daft Punk or Justice, you're not expecting to see an eight-piece band playing orchestrated parts. But for some reason, that's what The Spin was expecting from M83. Instead, we got a beautiful light show and a super-lush front-of-house mix, but a bunch of knob turning and dancing from the band. Anyway, the youthful crowd clearly loved the show, and didn't seem to care or notice just how programmed everything was. The whole evening had a very European disco feel to it — something we can't say we've seen too often in Nashville. The song that summed up the evening was "Wait," a beautiful new tune that sounded fantastic from where we were standing. But again, even from the back of the room, we noticed that nobody onstage seemed to be playing most of what we were hearing. It was distracting, and dangerously close to karaoke.
M83 continued to plow through back-catalog anthems, although they strangely concluded without playing 2008's hit, "Kim & Jessie." As we walked back to our car, we felt as if the Wizard's curtain had been pulled back a bit. It made us appreciate a band like LCD Soundsystem, which delivers its synth-heavy krautrock anthems with world-class musicianship, or even Nashville's own piece Ponychase, a new-wavey four-piece that sounds just as lush as M83. But it was then that we realized, while surrounded by blissful teenagers, that our desire for genuine musicianship sounds an awful lot like something our parents would have said to us back during our days as punk rock kids. Are we getting old? Sigh. Get off our lawn, et cetera.