House of Blues, San Diego, July 19, 2010
Ralph Ellison famously wrote that blues "are the only consistent art in the United States which constantly remind us of our limitations while encouraging us to see how far we can actually go."
And Mae West recommended that, "those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often. "
The Dead Weather takes blues-derived sexual disclosure as far as I personally have ever seen it pushed.
You can handle the truth.
They offer a shocking frontwoman in Alison Mosshart, who is a firm chastisement to singers of both sexes who strut the stage utterly clueless about the dirtiest sexual secret there is: For vast swathes of the adult human population, irrespective of gender identification or sexual orientation, one of the parties in every sexual encounter is always "just like your mother." ("Treat Me Like Your Mother")
Despite and because of this, it was a rollicking fun night in an intimate venue.
Attention has been paid to Mosshart's wild hair, skinny jeans, gold boots and howling command of the stage. Additional attention is due Dean Fertita's acutely expressive guitar and keyboards. Jack Lawrence's bass playing rocks, as does his bespectacled deadpan presence. But this band is more than the sum of its parts. Credit it with way too much gumption for a so-called supergroup. This live set thundered with energy. Two albums released in quick succession (2009's Horehound and Sea of Cowards, May, 2010, Third Man/Warner Bros.) combined with an intense live show betray the truth about The Dead Weather: they expect to enlarge upon blues-rock's means to engage erotic frenzy in depth. All night long.
In two recent films, the electric guitar tribute It Might Get Loud and the White Stripes tour scrapbook, Under Great White Northern Lights, attention-magnet Jack White expounds on his music's debt to constriction as aggressively as he pounds his drums in The Dead Weather's live set. At age eighteen, White heard the most incendiary weapon we've got in the American musical canon: Son House singing the acapella hailstorm that is "Grinning In Your Face." "One man against the world," White calls it. (What a relief that the ever-cruel world gets schooled in this particular bout.) Young Mr. White then experienced a crisis of conscience and creativity. He was terrified that the methods, force, feeling and fury of the blues were denied him as a Catholic seventh son from 1990s Mexicantown in Southwest Detroit. But he was hellbent on taking on the limits inherent in the blues, even as he recognized that there were limits on how he might enter within those limits.
Young Journeyman Jack found an enigma wrapped in a conundrum-in-a-straitjacket. He's been extolling limitation ever since: limitation is the means to mastery. His writing, performing and recording for ten years with The White Stripes evidences varied ingenious, credible, red-and-white ways to sing blues.
The Dead Weather offers up one more way. And it's fierce.
Ellison's writing on music trumpets blues' "assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstance." But, really, how may any artist access the articulation of personal catastrophe that is the unique genius of the blues when the ruination one is living is merely "irrepressibly human' and hasn't included the cataclysmic racism dealt African-Americans?
Artists are 100% inclusive when their subject is absolutely universal, like overwhelming sexual need and sexual dread. The Dead Weather excels at new demonstrations of harrowing erotic fever, terror, and collapse. On stage they're loud, proud, and crawling in humiliation in front of the backdrop of a graphic blue-and-black eye designed to watch all flesh flinch. The band is tight. And loose.
Sultry, bossy Mosshart aches to relieve erotic obsession in "The Difference Between Us." "Just let me do what I need to. It might be to me. Or to you. Just let me do what I need to." Helplessness boils into tyranny when she admits in "Gasoline" that she "doesn't want a sweetheart, sweetheart," but would welcome "a machine." This high-handed pedagogical approach assures erotic success, which quakes, even as it rocks. She's despotic. And overwhelmed. Forget Van Halen's tawdry old "Hot for Teacher." Mosshart lets us meet the real, and real nervous, thing in "I Can't Hear You." "I'm gonna teach you/And keep you for myself/ Gonna take you by the hand/ And walk you to my house/ So I can hear you." Her way with the words, and her waywardness in working a crowd, are genuine innovations to a rock role long gone limp with cliches. Shocking good! How is it that generations of rock playboys and rappers have flat-out missed all the sexual territory this band so effectively mines?
When Jack White strolls out from behind the drum kit to duet on the evening highlight "Will There Be Enough Water," he and Mosshart transform into two near-identical desiring shadows, each dictatorial, each abject. White's blistering guitar solos, so appreciated by a nothing-but-appreciative House of Blues crowd, take on a different resonance than those performed so satisfactorily under the childish dictates of The White Stripes. Fertita, Lawrence, Mosshart and White all let loose the universally stormy weather adults know all too well.
The Dead Weather's tour continues. Dates and info at www.thedeadweather.com.
Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act, quoted above, is still in print, published by Vintage, 1995.