Johnny Hunter // The Saboteurs
The Big Top, Sydney 20/04/2019
Photos: Peter Zaluzny (Facebook / Twitter) Review: Tegan Jones (Twitter)

There’s something poetic about The Saboteurs performing their first proper headline show in eight years here in Australia (save for the Third Man Records anniversary shows earlier in the month). It’s the one country in the world where they can’t go by their name of choice thanks to a Queensland band that uploaded a single song to Triple J Unearthed back in 2010.

But while Jack White has been here many a time, The Saboteurs never played Australia before going on hiatus in 2011. This is the second time in fourteen years that they have gotten to exercise their legally-enforced nom de plume in front of a crowd, and that alone, was enough to cause a stir of excitement in the local music scene. That, and the fact that Sydney was finally going to see the Saboteurs on stage.

Moving through the crowd under the Big Top, the air was thick with anticipation. But there was something else causing a buzz, too. There was talk of the infamous ‘no mobile phones’ rule that made headlines ahead of the tour. While some worried about what to do in emergency situations (there was a station in the lobby setup where punters could use their phones), others praised the purist approach that harkened back to the glory days of gigs, where one was more easily swept up in the music experience.

If people are too busy texting their mates or uploading to social media during the set, how can they truly be ensnared by the band, the music, the moment?  And in turn, how is a band supposed to do the same if it is met with a front row of people who are distracted by their devices?

All of these questions floated away once the support started.

It was Johnny Hunter, a local Sydney band that wove a mix of rock and 80s inspired genres into its set list. Frontman Nick Hutt was serving up retro rock realness, with an aesthetic that can only be described as ‘Best Man In An Aussie Movie Set Sometime Between 1981 and 1993.’ This is not a sledge. Hutt was magnetic as he glided across the stage, demanding the attention of the audience with his movements and gaze.

As a band, they delivered a variety of bangers that revealed the eclectic nature of their musical inspiration. One moment you could detect a hint of Bowie in Hutt’s voice, the next you would be smiling at the familiar undertones of Custard, INXS and The Smiths. Johnny Hunter brought glam rock back to the Big Top that night, and Sydney was grateful.

By the time the house lights illuminated the room at the end of the support act, it felt as if the crowd had grow accustomed to the distinct lack of phones. Besides the occasional bloke who stood around awkwardly, unsure of what to do with his hands, what the room was really alive with was conversation. The urge to pull one's device out of a back pocket out of sheer habit was dissipating on mass. It was nice.

Before long the lights dimmed again, sending a ripple of anticipation throughout the crowd. Jack White made his Sydney Saboteur debut with a trademark barely intelligible scream, followed by a wave if his hands, beckoning the crowd to get hyped.

And everyone was happy to oblige, as a canopy on sunset coloured lights exalted the stage as the band belted out familiar favourite, “Consoler of the Lonely.” This was immediately followed by “Bored and Razed,” the first of many new tracks that The Saboteurs were showcasing from their upcoming record, Help Us Stranger. This duality between old and new was the central thread that ran throughout the show.

While songs like “Hands” and “You Don't Understand Me” may have taken the band and fans back to their 2008 selves, new tracks served as a reminder that The Saboteurs aren’t just back for a nostalgia trip, they’re far from finished. About a third of the set was dedicated to new tracks and honestly, that wasn’t a bad thing.

When it came to production value, the delivery was tight, which fans know to expect from anything White touches. It also included two mics for the man himself, allowing him to switch between clean vocals and signature Jack White vocal effects. It was one of many bits of gear and gadgets he had on stage to truly allow his hyper-precise musical vision to explode across the room, a point he even noted, excitedly remarking “you should see all the gadgets I have back stage!”

The dynamic between him and vocalist Brendan Benson was also fascinating to watch. It's a rarity to have a band where the lead singer isn't the default star of the show. But while White couldn't help but steal the show on occasion - from taking over on keys to introducing the band members and himself ("I'm your friendly neighbourhood garbage man, Jack White.") - he still maintained band balance for the most part - and that's a tough job when so many people referred to the show as going to see “Jack White."

And that balance continued throughout the interaction between White and Benson on stage. Their gritty vs clean vocals were often the focal point, challenging one another and helping to build the layers between the rock and country ballads being belted at the audience. This culminated with the much-anticipated “Steady As She Goes,” where White and Benson really seemed to cut truly loose for the first time during the show.

Where the rest of the set was rehearsed and near-perfect (besides about a minute where the front-facing speakers cut out), this felt playful and a little more off the cuff as the pair played against each other, allowing for several extended choruses and a call-and-response moment with the audience. A decade-long valve has been released for us, and possibly even them.

The band was kind enough to roll out a four-song encore that included a romping, stomping cover of Donovan’s “Hey-Gyp (Dig the Slowness),” yet another new tune called “Thoughts and Prayes,” and the classic “Carolina Drama,” which perfectly encapsulates the strong southern influences that are peppered throughout The Saboteurs music. It doesn't just evoke a sense of feeling from the audience through the music, it builds a long form narrative through the lyrics. You become invested in how the story will play out.

But much like "Carolina Drama," when it comes to The Saboteurs we don't know how the story will end, because they're just getting started again.

Perhaps one day you'll have to ask the Milkman.