Stepping in for the canceled Morgan Wallen on “Saturday Night Live,” Jack White might have proved the most popularly satisfying musical pinch hitter since Aretha Franklin stepped in for Pavarotti on the Grammys 22 years ago. His power-trio double-header set was quickly applauded on social media as one of the most electrifying rock ‘n’ roll performances on the show in decades, and drew extra good will thanks to White using the moment to pay homage to another guitar hero, Eddie Van Halen.
It might have been coincidence that the show announced White would be filling in for Wallen (who was told not to report for work after flagrantly breaking COVID-19 distancing protocols) just a couple of days after Van Halen’s death. Whether purposeful or providential, White did offer a salute first by performing on a customized Eddie Van Halen guitar that he’s used in the past, then by offering a brief bit of EVH-style tapping at the beginning of his solo in “Lazaretto” before moving back into his own trademark style.
White had taken to Instagram earlier Saturday to say he would be paying homage in his fashion while not actually covering Van Halen. “I thought it could be a nice gesture for me to use this blue Eddie Van Halen model guitar for one of the songs tonight on SNL,” he wrote. “The guitar was designed by Eddie (with a few customizations i had added). Eddie was very kind to me and saw to it that this guitar was made for me to my specs. I won’t even insult the man’s talent by trying to play one of his songs tonight. Thanks again Eddie for this guitar and rest in peace sir.” (White being White, of course, he managed to find a smashing blue plaid suit to complement the instrument’s color.)
The guitar wasn’t the only thing that was customized. So was White’s opening medley, which, besides stringing together three disparate songs, included some lyrics rewritten for the quarantine era.
“The great disease was mighty and people were sick everywhere / It was an epidemic and it traveled though the air,” White sang in his first appearance. “Just tell everybody in the place to get out and we’ll be clean together.” The performance started with an appetizer of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” then went into the lyrically updated “Ball and Biscuit” as the main course — with an interlude of the Blind Willie Johnson song to really make it a full meal.
Eddie Van Halen was not the only late nmusical hero to receive a salute in White’s appearance. His intermittent bass player of many years, Dominic John Davis, wore a T-shirt bearing the word “PRINE” in honor of singer-songwriter John Prine, who would have been celebrating his 74th birthday Saturday night if he had not been tragically felled by COVID-19 this spring. (Some casual viewers might have believed it was a Prince T-shirt until Davis removed his guitar strap at the end.)
The biggest burning question for some viewers: What was up with Daru Jones’ drum kit, besides the fact that he was able to make it explode for minutes at a time? The drums in Jones’ kit were slanted away from him, although well within his reach due to the height of his drum stool or his eventual standing, a compelling visual that made it seem as if the fellow veteran of White’s bands might actually be playing the drums in a backwards “Tenet” universe.