The Raconteurs, Academy, Liverpool

Jack parties like it's 1966
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The Independent Culture

There aren't many bands who can play their first-ever gig in a venue the size of the Liverpool Academy, in front of a crowd as large and as rabid as this. But there's the rub.

The Raconteurs are essentially Jack White's Tin Machine (casual Bowie-watchers will get the reference), a side project he's formed with Detroit buddies Brendan Benson and a couple of Greenhornes. Perhaps you've already seen those having-it-both-ways live ads - the promoters took the unusual step of listing the band's line-up, but Jack's name is a modest third out of four. Either way, you can almost hear the soundbites - "We're a band, and I'm just the guitar player" - almost see the frosty glares if an interviewer dares ask any questions outside the Raconteurs' remit...

Previous White/Benson collaborations have been limited to B-sides, covers and cameos. The thinking behind the Raconteurs is interesting. Nobody in their right mind thinks The White Stripes have split up. And Benson, who can fill the small-to-medium theatres alone these days, doesn't need this. So is it purely for shits-and-giggles, or is there a "concept"?

I have my first listen to Broken Toy Soldiers, the debut album from The Raconteurs, on the train from London Euston to Liverpool Lime St, while reading the latest Mojo (yes, I'm almost that age now), the one with the mod-psych compilation CD on the front. Two songs in, I have to check that I haven't slipped the wrong disc in my Walkman by mistake.

The mod-psych era might be viewed, by some, as an obsolete historical irrelevance, a transitional phase, ultimately only as lastingly important as Betamax, Minidiscs or pagers. But it did produce some sweet pop lemon drops, the acid still equal parts citric and lysergic, before the drugs took over, the bowlcuts grew out, the sideys turned into beards, and Dark Side Of The bloody Moon was around the corner.

I get the feeling that White and Benson are connoisseurs of the School Of '66 too. It's telling that one of tonight's two cover versions is "A House Is Not A Motel" by Love, the American band whose sound was most analogous to British mod-psych. It's something they need to get out of their systems.

So, on they walk. White, having lost his 'tache, goatee and stovepipe, isn't looking quite so V for Vendetta nowadays. Benson, cheesecloth, face fuzz, fag in mouth, can't compete with his sidekick's iconic status. For all the pretence of equality, when Jack - with a swish of his black curtain hair, and a swirl of his wrists - launches into a fiendish face-scorcher of a solo after 20 seconds, the place goes berserk.

The love goes both ways. "Thank you, Liverpool," says Jack, as aware of the mythology of this city as anyone, probably more so. "I can't think of a better place for the first show." After "Steady As She Goes", the man next to me passes out. Jack notices, and gallantly asks us to "Help that man to his feet".

The vocal duties in The Raconteurs - and, one assumes, the lyric writing - are shared fifty-fifty, and they don't do Benson any favours. "You and me, forever/We belong together..." he sings. What intangible, nebulous essence of coolness, exactly, separates that from, I dunno, James Blunt? White, meanwhile, delivers the intriguing "Intimate Secretary", which introduces the words "ecclesiarchy" and "cashistocracy" to the rock lexicon.

The backing band are functional and unobtrusive. Auxiliary keyboardist Dean Fertita adds some Tubeway Army keys to "Level" and some dramatic World in Action-style organ to "Store Bought Shoes", and drummer Patrick Keeler shows off a little. I happen to be a huge fan of Meg White's untutored brutalism, but I wonder whether Jack is relishing the opportunity to play in front of a drummer who can (or who will) do all those high-speed paradiddles and big, crashing finales.

Some of the Raconteurs' material is up there with the best of its members' back catalogue. The closing "Blue Veins", an extraordinary blues ballad (imagine James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" covered by Led Zeppelin) could sit happily on any Stripes album.

But there is one more thing The White Stripes will always have over the Raconteurs: their ambiguous gender, the male/female Yin and Yang (as suggested by the red/white Campino swirl on the drumkit). I'm not just talking about Meg's presence. I'm talking about Jack's sexless falsetto, his unchanged cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene", and the like.

The Raconteurs, in comparison, are a straightforward male rock experience. In other words, they do exactly what it says on the Tin.