Jack White’s Saturday evening headlining set was one of the most anticipated sets of the entire weekend at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival. White’s performance, which went twenty minutes over the allotted 75-minute set time, was a fast-paced, thrilling mix of solo material, covers and songs from his back catalog with the White Stripes and the Raconteurs.

The 39-year-old White has long been courted by Newport, a festival with a deep, rich history of showcasing blues music in its 50+ year history. Opening his set with an instrumental take on “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” White and his five-piece backing band tore through their 19-song set with reckless energy. There were sing-alongs to the old White Stripes staples (“Hotel Yorba,” “Ball and Biscuit”) and extended jamming during throughout the set (“Top Yourself,” and “Death Letter”). “How you gonna top yourself/ when there’s no one else?/How you gonna do it by yourself,” White sang, sounding like a mission statement from the Nashville-based singer, who seems to be enjoying performing as a solo act (with a band behind him) more than ever, in his penultimate main set closer.

Indeed, during his debut Newport performance, White reveled in reclaiming his White Stripes hits from the previous decade as fully his own, and the singer didn’t shy away one bit from anchoring his set in his Detroit band’s most famous and beloved tunes. The first loud screams from the audience came when White introduced his fourth song of the evening by saying “this is a song about a hotel in Detroit City called Hotel Yorba,” before playing the first ever White Stripes single from 2001.

Although he didn’t stray too far from his recent sets, White was clearly overjoyed to be playing at a festival with the type of history and musical significance as Newport. At one point late in his set, White delivered an unprompted speech about the pitfalls of authenticity. “When you listen to music and go to shows, especially in this day and age, drop all your worries about authenticity,” the singer preached on-stage. “Let’s get rid of that word. Robert Johnson sung Bing Crosby on street corners for money. Authenticity is a phantom that will suck the blood out of you. It’s not about what clothes they wear, it’s about the music they play, is it not?”

Was the diatribe directed at the other artists at the festival, many of whom are younger Americana revivalists that are channeling the music of the rural, impoverished pre-war American South? Or was White, who has made a career off his obsession of the blues, providing an anxious self-defense at a festival whose history is so deeply indebted to the murky, always-difficult balancing acts of exploitation/appreciation and love/theft involved when white “folk” artists perform black vernacular music?

White continued to have fun and slyly comment on his surroundings throughout his performance, joking at one point about being told, upon expressing interest in an American flag backstage, to “go ahead and steal it, it’s the folk process.” White was indeed in good humor on Saturday evening, joking “that’s a true story” after performing, on piano, his over-the-top blue pastiche “Three Women, ” from Lazaretto. White’s calculated blues barrage does run the risk of getting lost in translation for big festival crowds, where the music can verge on coming across as simply aggressive hard rock. “I hear Black Sabbath right now,” one fan standing nearby said midway through White’s set.

During “Entitlement,” (performed in a quiet arrangement, complete with stand-up bass) one of several songs White played off his most recent 2014 record Lazaretto, an unexplained, small drone (perhaps from one of the yachts in the Newport harbor?) flew over the Newport crowd and puzzled White as he sang, fittingly, of the world “getting worse every day.” Elsewhere, as he rotated between electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and piano throughout the show, White continued to harmonize and sing with fiddle player Lillie Mae Rische, whom he mysteriously announced as being “from parts unknown.”

For most of the performance, though, White stayed crouched and close to his forceful rhythm section. His first of several truly impressive guitar solos came during a forceful cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train A Comin’,” while songs like “Would You Fight For My Love,” “The Rose With The Broken Neck,” (dedicated to Norah Jones, who performed at the festival earlier in the afternoon) and “Blunderbuss,” stood out as well as highlights. The former, in particular, shone most brightly when White showcased his pained, fragile, and frightful vocals when he sang the last verse of the song entirely a capella. Throughout the night, White’s impressive band switched, effortlessly, from country two-step to Delta blues to grungy garage rock.

White, who told the crowd that Newport was the “one place on earth where I could go around and watch bands” without being bothered by fans, continued to express his respect and gratitude towards one of the oldest, and longest-running, remaining showcases of American traditional music in the country. He gave shout-outs to some of the groups he saw earlier in the day, including Shovels & Rope, Pokey LaFarge, John Reilly & Friends, and the Milk Cart Kids, and for his encore, White brought up several of the day’s performers and musician friends on stage for a sing-along take on Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.”

It was a reverent, touching tribute to Pete Seeger, a Newport veteran who passed away at ninety-four this past January. With the sun setting, a clearly moved White led the main stage crowd at Fort Adams State Park through a song that’s been sung at Newport Folk Festival countless times before. It was the perfect, humble ending to a performance from one of the festival’s biggest stars.

(Photo courtesy David James Swanson via JackWhiteIII.com)

Setlist for Jack White @ Newport Folk Festival | 7/26/14

Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
Death Letter
High Ball Stepper
Hotel Yorba
John the Revelator
Hear My Train a Comin’
Icky Thump
We’re Going to be Friends
The Same Boy You’ve Always Known
Would You Fight for My Love?
Three Women
The Rose With the Broken Neck
Top Yourself
Ball and Biscuit


Goodnight, Irene