For the first 45 minutes of their time on stage Thursday at "ACL Live," The Raconteurs put on a textbook example of what a top-level touring rock band should look and sound like in 2019. Without feeling like a by-the-numbers or half-hearted effort, Detroit indie-rock BFFs Jack White and Brendan Benson led their only-occasional band through its "Austin City Limits" taping with all the energy, showmanship and panache that would be expected of a pair of rock vets in a high-profile setting.
If they’d made it through the whole of the band’s roughly 70 minutes on stage at that sort of comfortable cruising altitude, all involved on stage and in the audience would have had zero to gripe about. Loaded up with cuts from The Raconteurs’ recent classic rock love letter “Help Me Stranger,” it was business-like and professional in every way.
Then the volcano erupted.
Over the course of a three-song finale that clocked in at just over 20 minutes, White, Benson and the band playing behind them vaulted to another level, expanding and twisting songs in every direction possible. It was the kind of moment when talent and showmanship lock in with a gradually building momentum and give and take from an audience to produce something truly special and (to perhaps buy in a little too enthusiastically to showbiz romance) almost impossible to reproduce.
That journey started off humbly, with the band taking the two-minutes-and-change blues stomp of “Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)” and stuffing it full of more of everything: more blues explorations, more of Benson on harmonica, and both guitar players and bassist Jack Lawrence convening around Patrick Keeler’s drum set at various points for what felt like improvised rave ups. Taking a song that feels like an OK but unexceptional album cut and blowing it out in grandiose, kinetic fashion showed just what kind of highly concentrated creative juice gets flowing between the principle quartet and guest side man Dean Fertita.
Next it was time for the band’s career-making single “Steady As She Goes,” a jaunty classic of the mid-2000s period best known as the album blog era — that weird period before streaming but when whole albums could be found online for download. Made just before what turned out to be the final gasp of The White Stripes, “Steady…” is as undeniable a pop-rock hit as White has ever written.
If it had been played straight that would have more than sufficed — it’d be a crowd-pleaser even at low volume in a crowded mall. But on Thursday White and Benson made the song slithery and rubbery over a seven-minute playing that featured plenty of showy guitar work, a tricky call-and-response bit with the audience on the “Are you steady now?” lyric and a noisy, cacophonous freak out to end.
Tying it all off was “Carolina Drama,” the gothic American not-quite murder ballad that could be seen as The Raconteurs’ equivalent to “November Rain” without squinting too hard.
Even with its slow build on record, and especially live, everything about “Carolina Drama” is big. The band did not miss any opportunity on Thursday to heighten the drama, musical intensity or feeling of suspense that pervades throughout. A special note needs to be made about the importance of Fertita’s keyboard work — easily overshadowed by the immensity of everything else — for providing the essential thematic melody that bound everything together.
Sweaty and frothy even before the crowd helped with the final-third syncopated “la-la, lala-la-la” vocal, everyone involved knew the part they were playing and where things were going to end: with the audience chanting the final, dramatic “Go and ask the milkman” line as the band dropped out entirely.
Even if that line only adds confusion to the murder mystery that had just unfolded in the song, as the close to a rousing run of songs and showmanship, it was just about perfect.
"Bored And Razed"
"Don’t Bother Me"
"You Don’t Understand Me"
"Shine The Light On Me"
"Now That You’re Gone"
"Help Me Stranger"
"Thoughts And Prayers"
"Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)"
"Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)"
"Steady As She Goes"