Jack White Air Canada Centre, Toronto ON, July 31

Jack White Air Canada Centre, Toronto ON, July 31
Photo: David James Swanson
Audience engagement seems to be a big deal for Jack White lately. On a recent Conan appearance, he issued a plea that concertgoers put away their phones; during a recent show at Detroit's Fox Theatre, he truncated his opening set when he didn't like the energy in the plush, seated venue.

This wasn't a problem in Toronto, as a crowd that ranged from children taking in their first concert to crowd-surfing ruffians aspired to some kind of energetic communion with the iconic figure. During "Just One Drink," a large beer was thrown in White's general direction. He shook his head violently after, but it's not clear if he got splashed, because Jack White does a lot of violent head-shaking at the best of times. In a venue notorious for its $17 beers, "Just One Drink" was probably prudent advice.

"Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" opened the show promptly at 9:05 and found White flopping around the stage like a marionette puppet on loose strings. Drummer Daru Jones seemed a perfect foil for White from the outset. A large man, Jones was jumping off his stool and punishing the skins as you might expect Red Sox slugger David Ortiz would. "Hotel Yorba" has rightly become an American classic, and it was played like one, with emphasis on Fats Kaplan's pedal steel. White dedicated it to Stompin' Tom Connors.

Duets with fiddler Lillie Mae Rische on "Temporary Ground" and "Alone in My Home" were both high points. White has borrowed from Bob Dylan in a number of ways over the years, most notably in the cadence of his stage banter, but with the diminutive Rische, White appears to have co-opted the exact blocking that was used between Joan Baez and Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Revue, with both singers sharing a mic and basically shouting directly into each other's mouths. White is regarded as a producer and songwriter who elevates performers, but something about White's duet with Rische on "We're Going To Be Friends" felt almost sacrilegious, like some kind of musical cuckolding of Meg White.

After a short break, White returned for a ten-song encore kicked off by urgent takes on "Icky Thump" and "Ball and Biscuit." From the second song of the encore, fans began demanding "Seven Nation Army." Given that "Seven Nation Army" is White's signature closer, requesting it so early in the encore was essentially asking for the concert to end. Fortunately, White didn't oblige and continued to pound out hits like "Hello Operator" and the Raconteurs' "Steady as She Goes."

Few were disappointed by the end of the 25-song, two hour set. The band provided interesting layers to what could have devolved into an endless shred-fest, at one point even featuring that most science-fictional of instruments, the theremin. But for all the added sophistication, the experience would pale compared to even a mediocre White Stripes performance.

At the turn of the century, it seemed maybe Jack White really was "the seventh son," or at least an heir to the mystical virtuosos of yesteryear. Maybe it's because those songs came from a raw, post-adolescent songwriter, and these later ones skew towards the petulant and whiny end of the spectrum. A guy in the bathroom was overheard saying, "At this point in his career he's way overrated." True, perhaps. But while Jack White isn't quite the saviour we once needed him to be, he's still giving it everything he's got.