It’s too late to save rock ‘n’ roll, probably. But God bless the Raconteurs for trying. Their impromptu L.A. club show Thursday at an off-the-beaten-track spot down on Pico Blvd. called Jewel’s Catch One was thrill-ride enough to turn even the most dedicated post-guitar-nation popists among us back into rockists, if just for a night. Not every one of the 16 songs performed across 90 minutes had hairpin turns; one frontman, Brendan Benson, leans a little harder into the hardcore melodicism, and the other, Jack White, is more the one bringing the Cyclone to town as a pop-up installation. But together, they’re invigorating enough to remind you why you ever loved this stuff. Honestly, it’s been a little while.
In promoting their first album in a decade, “Help Us Stranger,” the Raconteurs are on a tour of the smallest places they can find to play that are not actual closets. Not to worry that they can’t fill bigger rooms; locally, the Greek is booked for July 26. In the meantime, they’re doing a few record-shop in-stores as well as surprise club gigs. In New York’s Village, they played Generation Records, which, if you’ve ever been in Generation Records, seems just above booking a closet on the hilariously incalculable scale. In Hollywood, they did a slightly less modest retail palace, Amoeba Records, for a half-hour daytime show Wednesday. Thursday night’s full show allowed for less than half the audience that crowded into Amoeba, with maybe 2-300 people who’d lined up for $60 tickets earlier in the day. It was billed as a benefit for the GSA Network, which “unites trans and queer youth of color for racial and gender justice”— perhaps in a bow to the place in history that Jewel’s Catch One holds as a former landmark gay/black disco, or perhaps just in a nod to the prevailing consciousness of the moment.
This sweaty little black box of a club with spinning light orbs probably left over from the disco days was the ideal place to experience a garage-rock-gone-proficient band like the Raconteurs, of course… unless that ideal place would be a massive festival. Not many groups seem as equally suited to a dive and the heightened grandiosity of a festival. But one unexpected side effect of putting on “Help Us Stranger” for a spin this month was pre-mourning the likely demise of Woodstock 50, which feels like it’s spent the better part of the year circling the drain without ever quite getting sucked down for the count. There were dozens and maybe hundreds of reasons to not want to go to a Woodstock 50, not least of them being the largely random lineup. But “Help Us Stranger” is so very steeped in classic rock that it feels like it needs to be performed to a lot of happy mud people who might know or only sense that a lot of this music has touchstones somewhere around 1969, even if the Raconteurs do usually manage to squeeze even their jammy moments into four minutes or less. If only there were 50 more bands just like ‘em, there might even be a reason to get ourselves back to the garden.
But back to the bars will do. The Raconteurs opened their club show, as they do the new album, with “Bored and Razed,” a barnburner that sets the tone with some back-and-forth lead vocals between White and Benson, a la early Lennon/McCartney, versus the many other songs that are more clearly the work of this group’s John or Paul. (The songwriting credits are always shared even when the singing and writing duties aren’t, a la you know who.) Eight of the new album’s 12 songs were performed — a ratio and lineup that already changes from night to night on this pre-tour tour. (“Live a Lie,” a garage-y Benson insta-classic that’s showed up at most of the other gigs, was particularly missed here.) The appearance of an acoustic guitar around Benson’s neck did not usually portend that things were about to get mellow. It didn’t, for example, on “Help Me Stranger,” the new record’s sort-of title track, which grooves along to a not-so-icky thump and has Benson and White harmonizing on a line about “these 16 strings we’re strumming,” as amusingly cocky a statement of two-guitars-and-a-bass purpose as you’ll find in any modern rock song. It should be said that on a couple of occasions the strings added up to more than 16, as the keyboard player also had a third guitar at his disposal.
Come to think of it, it should also be emphasized that it was not always strumming that was being done to the guitars. On the Benson songs that achieve some blissful level of power pop or mellow gold, White is usually in there filling in the spaces between lyrics with bee-sting licks. “Now That You’re Gone” is a veritable duet between Benson and White — that is, between the former’s smooth, only slightly anxious-sounding vocals and the latter’s completely anxious guitar interjections, which achieve the level of hysteria White is known for in the quickest possible bursts. This is a group that prides itself on pop economy — virtually every song on “Help Us Stranger” seems slightly shorter than you might wish — but that almost never sticks with one texture from bar to bar within those quickies. Take the Side 1-ending “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying),” which, as some fans have already noted online, has relaxed Southern-rock verses that sound completely redolent of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone.” (Except maybe better? Don’t shoot, Skynyrd fans.) But in the choruses, it kicks into a guitar sound more akin to another Side 1-ender, the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
When the band got into the songs that are pure Jack, then all bets for sonic congruity were off. Second up on the setlist was a new song that might’ve been a climactic one for anybody else — “Don’t Bother Me,” which starts in double-time and slows down into single-time before ramping up again, like one of the proggier moments on White’s much-underrated solo album from last year, “Boarding House Reach.” Some fans complained about the overall weirdness of that effort, but when it’s thrown in as a spice in the Raconteurs’ brew, with some serious guitar flip-outs and speed-metal drumming, all of a sudden it’s “Please, sir, may I have another?” The audience proudly held phones aloft to capture White spitting out complaints about “all your clicking and swiping.” (There was no phone confiscation at this gig, but by the time the band comes back to play the Greek, knowing White, they’ll probably be back in locked-pouch mode.)
Unlike the record-store shows, which have consisted solely of new material, the Racs are filling out the longer club gigs with the pre-aughts oldies — “Broken Boy Soldier,” “Level,” “Salute Your Solution,” “Consoler of the Lonely,” etc. When it came to lone superhit “Steady as She Goes,” last in a six-song encore, that whole economy thing was out the window. The guy who spent years in a band without a bass is not about to let one of the more famous bass riffs of the 21st century pass unimprovised upon.
Benson keeps a pretty even keel throughout a show, so it’s White whose mood markers you look for. The high spirits had him launching into a couple of speed monologs, in and out of song, that were basically completely unintelligible, although one of them seemed to be a riff on different scenes — somehow the Montana scene came up for mention — and a plea to not tear each other down and a reminder that he loves us and we love him. Well, sure. He was also in a spontaneous enough mood to hold his finger up to drummer Patrick Keeler toward the end of “Only Child” so that he and Benson could share a mic for an acoustic reprise of the gorgeous hook… before, you know, he went gonzo again for 10 seconds to end the song. There was an on-stage introduction of a ZZ Top-looking crew member who recently became engaged to “a beautiful woman from Ohio who loves him as much as he loves his own beard,” and a shout-out to QOTSA’s Josh Homme, with a confusingly quick explanation of just how many degrees of separation there are between the Raconteurs’ other projects and Homme’s other projects (not many).
Given the un-glitziness of this south-of-the-Olympic-border locale, and the pop-up nature of the show, it wasn’t surprising that there wasn’t a bigger celebrity quotient on hand beyond Homme, although someone suspiciously resembling Josh Whedon was sighted at the back of the room. This was dense and unassuming Arlington Heights, not “Hollywood,” which probably made a Detroit kid feel a lot more at home. The crowd felt at home, certainly, with Catch One feeling like a venerable club you were visiting in an unfamiliar city, as opposed to a disco that just turned over a new rock and EDM leaf. There was tight four-man harmonizing and uncontrolled guitar spinouts and lightning in a Jewel box. There was a sense of community — with White, the benign dictator, cheerfully back in socialist sharing mode with Benson — and of individual freak flags flying. Best of all, there was consolation for the lonely, because people who need guitar-playing people are the loneliest people in the world.
The Raconteurs return to southern California with shows at the Greek July 26, Santa Barbara Bowl July 27 and San Diego’s Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre July 28.