by The Spin
As far as headline-status main-stage performances are concerned, Kanye West set a surprisingly low bar on Friday night. So long as Saturday night headliner Jack White neither alienated his crowd nor provided a mediocre, lackluster performance — and those aren’t exactly things the Nashville resident and Third Man Records honcho is known for — it promised to be a bar White could likely skip over while blindfolded with his Telecaster-strumming hand tied behind his back. And as soon as White delivered his first words to the audience (“Come on, Tennessee! I know you!,” which he shouted in the middle of his second song) he had Bonnaroo eating from the palm of his hand.
With his band gathered around him in a tight semi-circle and bathed in powder-blue light, White would later tell his audience that, rather than using pyrotechnics or flashy gimmicks, he hoped to play like he and his friends were performing in some room together, with all of us looking in. He engaged the tens-of-thousands-strong crowd all throughout his set, “checking up on” everyone and noting that — just as he told us in our interview with him days ago — his “heart goes out to” anyone who loves music enough to suffer through lines and heat and mud just to watch their favorite artists perform. “Who makes music happen?” he demanded. “Does a tabloid like Rolling Stone make music happen? You and I make it exist.” Unlike Kanye, White wasn’t playing at his audience — he was playing to them.
White and his band of Nashville ringers led their set with a thunderous rendition of “Icky Thump,” though it of course wouldn’t be the last White Stripes tune in the set — “Hotel Yorba,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told),” a countrified “We’re Going to Be Friends” sing-along, “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” and “Ball and Biscuit” all made the cut for the main set, with The Raconteurs’ “Steady, as She Goes” and “Top Yourself” dropped in along the way. But just as much of the set saw White stomping, lurching and charging around the stage to cuts from 2012’s Blunderbuss and the brand-new Lazaretto, with drummer Daru Jones’ volatile, explosive bombast setting the pace.
There was a bit more banter and crowd-engagement: White nodded to Tennessean musicians who came before him (Elvis, Dolly, Loretta and more), thanked everyone for doing whatever job it is they do, name-dropped Jim Jarmusch, talked about the moon and reminded everyone that some of the best art has come into existence simply as the result of folks “having nothing better to do.” There was a snippet of Led Zeppelin's "The Lemon Song," and then, at the conclusion of White’s main set, the crowd — which, so far as The Spin could tell, hadn’t dissipated or lost momentum one bit in the 90 minutes since the performance began — summoned the man and his band back to the stage not with chants of “Encore!” or “Jack!” but rather by screaming the melody to “Seven Nation Army.”
It worked, and what followed was a 10-song encore that started with “The Hardest Button to Button” and included The Dead Weather’s “Blue Blood Blues” and Blunderbuss’ “Sixteen Saltines.” When we chatted with White for this week's cover story, he told us that, when it comes to festivals, "I just try to give as much energy to it as I possibly can. Sometimes it feels like that energy just dissolves into black hole in front of us." If that's what the man was feeling at Bonnaroo Saturday night, he certainly wasn't showing it — as the clock ticked over to 1 a.m., he gave the people what they wanted: The inevitable "Seven Nation Army," an after-the-fact jock jam adopted by sports fans the world over, was received with roaring applause. With thank-yous for each of his band members and a thank-you to a crowd that stuck with him from "Icky" to "Army," White took a bow, offering, "You've been incredible, and I've been Jack White."