The Raconteurs' two-hour set at Mission Ballroom on Wednesday concluded with an extended version of “Steady, As She Goes” that featured call-and-response guitar and bass reminiscent of the reggae-punk of the Clash's first album. By then, the sold-out Denver crowd of nearly 4,000 had been thrown back into the wild times of loud, crazed electric blues circa ’60s Led Zeppelin and Cream. Raconteurs co-frontman and lead guitarist Jack White, switching vintage and custom guitars on nearly every tune, had transported us to an era when — as Tom Petty famously said — rock and roll wasn’t yet totally separated into rock (heavy, ostensibly soulless, guitar-driven white music) and roll (R&B).
Because of White’s notorious no-phones policy, we were also transported to a time that seems as far away as the Jurassic period, though it was barely more than a decade ago: the era when going to see live music meant leaving the world outside the venue behind. Harking back to a time when there were no distractions except maybe some concert-goers talking too much, not a single photo was taken by a fan. No one was staring down at a phone or really focused on anything but the music and maybe the joy of sharing such a fantastic show with a music-loving date.
As concert-goers entered Mission Ballroom (where, by the way, the sound is loud and clear from virtually anywhere), everyone with a phone was asked to put it into a locked cloth bag that could only be opened at designated “phone zones” in the hallways, away from the “human experience” of the show. The restriction enhanced the most valuable human senses at a concert: sight and sound.
The five-piece Raconteurs came out swinging, tearing into “Bored and Razed,” the rollicking first track on the group’s new album, Help Us Stranger (its first release in eleven years), which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts in June. The band kept embracing the glee of volcanic noise; White jumped on and off Patrick Keeler’s drum riser, and the group embraced feedback between each song, all contributing to the “This is a rock concert” atmosphere that’s missing at so many modern shows.
Co-lead singer and rhythm guitarist Brendan Benson, who lamented the effects Denver's dry climate had on his voice, fronted the band through the more mellow tunes in the Raconteurs’ catalogue, such as “Old Enough” and “Only Child." But in his hands they stood tall and loud, becoming more rock and roll in a live setting than the folk rock they sound like on record. Benson, a Detroit-area native like White, cut a Paul Westerberg-type figure on stage, all lanky, sweet-voiced and still. Meanwhile, White bounced around and screamed as if he were kicking out the jams with the MC5 or the Stooges in Detroit’s salad days of proto punk.
Everyone in the Raconteurs is supremely talented and should be lauded for keeping the flame of rock and roll alive in a way that would tickle Lester Bangs’s soul. But it’s White who, at 44, took that flame and set the crowd on fire, summoning Hendrix with his vintage-guitar fireworks, and beckoning us to sing along with the raucous, wicked “Top Yourself," bringing the whole evening to a boil with a “Steady, As She Goes” sing-along. I was honestly surprised he didn’t jump right into the crowd with his guitar on, still shredding away like Yannis Philippakis of Foals has been known to do at the Ogden.
It would have been easy to miss some of the show's nuances had I been able to access my phone. Of course, a no-phones policy would be more complicated for most acts, especially up-and-coming bands, because commercial success these days is boosted, if not caused, by fans posting loads of content to social media at shows. But I hope more big-name artists take a cue from the Raconteurs and outlaw smartphone use at shows.