For the past few months US rock ‘n’ rollers The Raconteurs have been traversing their homeland belting out blistering and ever-changing live renditions of their tracks, old and new.
If you were to search online now though for evidence, I’m afraid you would find precious little.
That’s due to the fact guitar hero Jack White insists all mobile phones are handed in at their gigs on arrival and stashed in a Yondr pouch, which means they can’t be used and are only unlocked when fans and journalists alike leave the venue.
The idea is to salvage the sanctity of the collective live music experience by moving fans’ focus and energy away from their cameras and social media and back into the room.
Grime star Skepta took a similarly zero tolerance approach to phone use at his Manchester International Festival show, and Madonna is reportedly planning something similar on her new tour. Meanwhile Billie Eilish asked her audience to down tools and share a moment together during her Reading + Leeds festival sets this summer.
Another young artist, Mabel, went the opposite way last week, performing on a bespoke Instagram-inviting vertical stage, but the Nashville-based Raconteurs say it’s better for their followers to have their fingers on the pulse rather than the keypad.
“The real testimony is these crowds are just having a blast,” says co-frontman Brendan Benson.
“In turn we’re having a blast and so it’s just this great kind of storm.
“I’m convinced it’s just because they’re disconnected.”
He adds: “They’re just connecting with other humans and interacting and having an experience. Making memories.
“I think they love it. Anyone who comes to our shows, I think I would venture to say 99% of the people probably would do it every time – just hand over their phones.”
‘No two shows alike’
The Raconteurs emerged in 2005 out of the ashes of White’s old band The White Stripes and since then, they’ve been coming up with innovative ways to make each one of their shows a unique occasion.
One of their first UK tours saw them churn out live CDs – complete with sleeve artwork – so fast fans were able to drive home from venues like the Manchester Apollo listening back to what they’d just witnessed. Now during their recent three-night residency in their adopted hometown, the band teamed up with nugt.tv to livestream the gigs for free, and for White’s Third Man Records archive.
“We’re going to just be releasing certain things that we think are interesting and let the fans follow along,” explains White – the man responsible for the first vinyl record played in space.
“Because I think that with all the bands that have followings out there like that for live [concerts], the jam bands – the Widespread Panics, Grateful Deads and Pearl Jam – because of the style of music… In all my projects, we’ve never had setlists and we play differently every time we play a song.
“So it’s right for that kind of following of people who like to hear a different version of each song every time they come and no two shows we’ve done this year have been alike.
“That’s that’s a cool thing to be part of, I think.”
That sense of attempting to regain lost connections runs right through their rootsy, bluesy and soulful new album Help Us Stranger. No more so than on its title track, which finds both singers crying: “Help me, stranger / Help me get it off my mind / Get me back on my feet / Brother, can you spare the time?”
Incredibly their first album in 11 years gave The Raconteurs their first US number one – at the third attempt – fending off Lil Nas X’s EP, which contained the summer smash Old Town Road.
“I think a lot of people were kind of surprised to see a rock ‘n’ roll record be number one,” notes White.
The 44-year-old believes putting out a Raconteurs record on his own label for the first time “reinvigorated everyone”, while the impetus to get the old band back together initially came from a song left off his experimental last solo album, called Shine the Light on Me.
“I thought ‘that sounds like a Raconteurs song to me,'” he declares.
“So I started working on it, I played it for [fellow solo act] Brendan and he thought so too.”
To help “kick-start” their creativity, White then employed “an old trick I’ve been using for a long time” by covering a song he’d just heard on the radio while driving into the studio. This just so happened to be Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness) by Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan and the band’s brilliant bluesy take on it made the cut.
And while White’s exhilarating guitar-playing and raw vocals remain the main draw, many of the album’s more composed moments come courtesy of Benson. Like the wonderfully world-weary Somedays I Don’t Feel Like Trying and the wistful Now That You’re Gone, which was released as a double A-Side lead single next to the psych rock stomp Sunday Driver.
The band – who are known to Australian readers as The Saboteurs (there was already another band Down Under with the same name) may have been around the block a few times before but they’ve still enjoyed a “wild” tour, playing to phone-free audiences around the world.
(They stopped off only once in the UK to catch-up with “great guys” The Strokes at London’s All Points East Festival).
With plenty of new memories stored safely in the analogue brain bank, The Raconteurs had a night they won’t forget too soon in Washington last month.
‘One in a million’
After attending the start of the Washington Nationals v Milwaukee Brewers baseball game, they left to go and play their own show half a mile away, before realising it was a tie and hot-footing it back to the stadium to catch the decisive extra innings with a beer.
“I checked and I saw the score was on my computer,” recalls Detroit Tigers fan White. “‘Oh, my God – the baseball game is still going on!’
“‘If they get to the end of this innings we gotta go back!’ And they did and we did it – ‘Let’s get in the car right now.'”
After getting through two police blockages in place to keep the traffic flowing, they were finally let back in just in time for the thrilling finale.
“It was the most exciting part because everyone’s fighting to the death. It was hilarious, that’ll never happen again – it’s just a one in a million.”
The Brewers won, by the way, but that’s not quite the end of the story folks…
“Then we went back to the venue and the after-party was still happening,” Benson remembers, “So we just joined that again!”
Surely one for the band’s Instagram story, right?