Jack White had come to kill.
That was clear as soon as the singer-guitarist burst onto the main stage at Coachella on Saturday night, dressed in the pinstripe suit of an old-fashioned gangster and wielding his Fender Telecaster like a machine gun. And kill he did, over the course of a frenzied headlining set that was among the most thrilling I've ever seen at this desert blowout.
What was he so hopped-up about? Modern distractions, for one. Minutes into the show, White beseeched the crowd to put away the darn cellphones — he used a stronger word — just the latest outburst of his longstanding frustration with technology, most of which he views as an impediment to real-world engagement.
FULL COVERAGE: Coachella 2015
Yet he was no nostalgist. "The gold rush is over," he announced at one point. "This is the new world, is it not?" Then he said he was dedicating the concert to "transgender people"; later, he shouted out some of his fellow Coachella performers, including Tyler, the Creator; St. Vincent; and FKA Twigs — hardly the festival's throwback contingent.
A willfully jarring collision of tones and textures, White's show — bathed in the blue light he's used since going solo in 2012 — felt like a forceful argument that hand-played roots music can still speak to (and about) our times.
"Lazaretto" jolted to life with a swaggering, hip-hop-inspired beat, while "Just One Drink" kept stopping and starting like a spotty Wi-Fi connection. Elsewhere, folkier songs like "Temporary Ground" and "Hotel Yorba" (one of a handful of White Stripes songs he did) vibrated with nervous energy, as concerned with some ancient ritual as they were, perhaps, with the drones hovering over the polo field Saturday night.
Leading his expert band on a variety of vintage string instruments, White said "We're Going to Be Friends" had the kind of "four-on-the-floor beat that's so popular right now." And he was right — the song made for a hoedown that might've fit, with only minor adjustment, in Coachella's Sahara tent.
Throughout the show, White's guitar playing was a thing of wonder, but not because of the power he was exerting over his instrument; indeed, he seemed barely in control of the thing, which was spraying trebly, high-pitched feedback all over the place. The idea was guitar heroism less as a feat of ability than as an act of willingness — storm-chasing, essentially.
The most dogged chase came in "Ball and Biscuit," which opened an encore that also included a breakneck "Sixteen Saltines," a swaggering "That Black Bat Licorice" and a starkly dramatic "Would You Fight for My Love?"
White, of course, knew there was no way he was getting away without doing "Seven Nation Army," a festival jam if ever there was one. But in a delightfully counterintuitive twist, he decided to swap out his electric guitar for a battered acoustic that made him sound as though he were wearing steel-wool mittens as he plucked out the song's signature descending riff.
As it happened, he didn't even need the acoustic: Halfway through the tune, the crowd took over for White, turning the riff into a wordless vocal chant. That smoothed his furrowed brow at last.