Jack White took his solo show on the road at New York City's Webster Hall Friday night. (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
The block in New York's East Village that houses Webster Hall was packed nearly end-to-end with enormous trucks on Friday -- trucks loaded with musical equipment, electronic equipment, satellite equipment, and lord knows what else, all in service of the American Express: Unstaged broadcast of Jack White's performance that night. And Billboard.biz and several other lucky journalists were led into one of those trucks late Friday afternoon for a tour of the facilities and a brief chat with the broadcast's director, actor Gary Oldman.
Of course, Friday's show was the 8th installment in "American Express: Unstaged," a series that was created in 2010 by American Express in partnership with Vevo and Youtube. From its inception, "Unstaged" has paired A-list artists with equally top-tier directors, from Arcade Fire and Terry Gilliam to Mary J. Blige, breaking YouTube live-stream records in the process - October's installment with Coldplay and Anton Corbijn topped out at 19 million live streams. That's why it's also engineered to give those artists an extra jolt of exposure during their album release weeks, with a dash of social media to give fans direct input to artist Q&As and even setlists. ( White's solo debut, Blunderbuss, already debuted at No. 1 in the UK and is expected to top the Billboard 200 when this week's chart is published on Wednesday.)
"I feel, in a way, I lucked out," said Oldman, sporting a jaunty scarf and a Swinging London-style '60s blue jacket with white stripes (!), when asked how the collaboration came together. The courting process was simple: White was asked who he'd like to work with and Oldman was his first choice, albeit not an obvious one. Oldman is known primarily as an actor for his work in films like The Dark Knight, the Harry Potter franchise, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and many others, and less for his occasional directing of music videos for Guns 'N Roses ("Since I Don't Have You") and the 1997 feature "Nil by Mouth." "I'd never met Jack before but I like his music, so I felt very fortunate."
(Note: Photographs were not allowed during the Oldman interview or the tour of the venue.)
Oldman said he was hoping to evoke a little bit of "Last Waltz" in his direction, using "Unstaged" multi-camera angle approach to focus on things like a female drummer's bare foot and leaving one camera black and white while the others were drenched in the black-and-blue lighting White chose to illustrate his "Blunderbuss" tour - and he could afford to, having some 13 cameras at his disposal. "We wanted to have an authentic, retro look to it," he said, while allowing that "You can't reinvent the wheel - it's a rock concert."
Amid the many challenges in directing a live webcast on the scale of Friday's was a major complicating factor: White's aversion to working with a setlist. He intends to play a different set every night on this tour - and is traveling with two different bands, one all-male and the other all-female, and has famously said he's going to decide every morning at breakfast which band he's playing with. For Friday's show, he split the difference by performing the first set with the latter band and the second set with the former.
White and his band on stage at Webster Hall. (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
"We're all passengers here," Oldman said, after explaining that even though both bands would be performing, no one knew which songs would be played. "It's a bit like a soccer match," he said in a comment that went over the heads of nearly everyone, before he clarified about the unplanned nature of much of the show.
That freeform quality also informed the broadcast, which offered different camera angles for viewers to choose from. "Live-plus-digital is the most exciting place to play right now, especially as big brands embrace the need for co-creation with brands, bands and fans," says Joe Killian, senior VP of music and entertainment for Momentum and an executive producer of "Unstaged." "Ultimately, the fan will decide on what music or content is most important, what is most compelling and relevant and what music demands sharing and the forms it takes."
And indeed, White's set was full of surprises, although the audience was on board from the opening chords of the opening song - a blistering take on the White Stripes classic "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."
From there the nearly two-hour performance stretched all across White's career, focusing on his new solo debut, Blunderbuss, but also including tracks he performed with the Dead Weather, the Raconteurs, Rome, a Hank Williams cover and several White Stripes tracks, the most drastically reinvented of which was a bluegrassed-up version of "Hotel Yorba." (You can still view most of the set, along with other video goodies, at Jack's Vevo channel.)
White in mid-performance. (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
The VIP section in the upstairs balcony was nearly as packed as the floor, and people .Biz saw and talked with during the show includes White's publicist, Nasty Little Man founder Steve Martin and staffers Laura Eldeiry, Dana West and Perri Cohen; White's manager Ian Montone; Spin's Caryn Ganz; Entertainment Weekly's Leah Greenblatt; the Village Voice's Maura Johnston; Pitchfork's Amy Phillips; Consequence of Sound's Harley Brown; and from a distance: Jude Law, Jim Carrey, Shaun White, Maya Rudolph, Judd Apatow and briefly, Jay-Z, who was overheard telling a companion that they needed to "get [someone] down to the Pig," presumably the Spotted Pig restaurant that he co-owns.
And unusually for a gig with such a strong industry presence, the chatter was mostly about White: the new album; the reinvention of earlier songs and how different some of them sounded with a full band; how solid the set was, considering how early it was in the tour; and the extent of his artistic control, which actually stretched to this article: amid all the photographs taken that night, the three you see here are the only ones from the show he approved!