Steady as they go

Jack White and Brendan Benson sat down to jam and ended up forming a band around the sound.

virgin festival

September 21, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

It all started in the middle of a sweltering summer day last year when two musician friends hooked up to shoot the breeze and jam.

One guy, Jack White of the White Stripes, happens to be one of the most visible and eccentric stars to emerge from the indie rock scene in years. The other, Brendan Benson, is an acclaimed power-pop rocker whose work has yet to garner much mainstream attention. Together that day, the two interlocked their '60s rock-inspired sound and came up with a memorable ditty called "Steady, As She Goes." It was such an inspired groove that White and Benson decided to form a band around the song. With the two sharing duties on guitar, vocals and keys, they later drafted bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler, both from the Cincinnati garage band the Greenhornes. The four guys called themselves the Raconteurs and immediately went to work on Broken Boy Soldiers, the band's concise and colorful debut, released in May.

The Raconteurs will perform cuts from it at the Virgin Festival by Virgin Mobile on Saturday. "The record came out of a friendship," says Benson. He and White are on a conference call from a tour stop in Houston. "We were fans of each other. It happened off the cuff. We didn't spend too much time working on the songs."

"We worked on it fast," White adds. "We didn't say things out loud, like, `We need to finish this in a week.' We weren't trying to make a perfect Sgt. Pepper album," he says, referring to the 1967 Beatles masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Benson chimes in, "This was just a snapshot of a band and where we were."

Indeed, Broken Boy Soldiers feels that way. Just a little over 30 minutes long, the CD, to paraphrase the Godfather of Soul James Brown, "hits it and quits it." Although the songs never sound hastily thrown together, they don't come off as fully realized, either.

"We were writing so much at the beginning," Benson says. "What you hear is us writing and recording immediately."

They may not be master song craftsmen, but the guys can play. And the album smolders with inspired riffs and psychedelic blues grooves. Granted, much of it is derivative of the Kinks and the Beatles circa Revolver. But that's no surprise. Even on previous projects, White and Benson have always adhered to (or downright rehashed) guitar rock of the mid- to late '60s. With its throbbing bass, jerky beat and explosive chorus (surely a Benson contribution), "Steady, As She Goes" almost sounds like a lost single from that era.

Though the other nine songs aren't as immediate as that ingratiating first single, they synthesize interesting style ideas: Eastern instrumentation awash with psychedelia ("Intimate Secretary") and twangy blues underpinned by strange tape manipulations ("Blue Veins").

"In a lot of ways, I think everyone felt liberated to explore musically," Benson says. "For me, it was a great vehicle to do something different, which was the idea."

White says, "We've played 30 shows so far, and it's changing night by night. We're getting away from set lists. We're doing longer versions of the songs and some covers. It's really cooking."

Though there are no immediate plans to release a follow-up album anytime soon, the Raconteurs have already completed enough songs for another one. The experience of this side project has stirred up enough creative juices for their other commitments.

"I've learned more about the guitar in the last year than I've learned in the last 10 years by playing with another guitarist night after night," says White, who's on a short break from his Stripes partner Meg White. "You can't help but take something with you when working with other musicians who are so good."

"I'm learning a ton," Benson adds. "I'm not sure what that is now. But I'll know later."

The Raconteurs are scheduled to perform at 2:25 p.m. Saturday on the Grandstand Stage at the Virgin Festival.

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