A sell-out crowd of 1,800 packed Boston’s chandeliered, carpeted and cavernous dance club The Roxy, gazed upon a stage set like a giant, round, peppermint suck candy, and awaited that coordinating brother/sister team. The lights dimmed, Jack and Meg White ambled across the stage, settled into their gear and smiled sheepishly at the crowd and at each other. The applause died down. Then Jack ripped into the chromatic, descending guitar intro of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, and 1800 jaws dropped as one of the heaviest riffs since Black Sabbath’s “Supernaut” tore through the air.
The White Stripes are the real deal. No bass guitar, no samples, no click tracks, no “exploratory jams”—just monster tunes, earth-shaking guitar, a telepathically intuitive drummer, and a vocal delivery that can evoke Iggy Pop as easily as Gene Vincent. Sure, most of the Boston crowd was hoping the band would rock as hard as they do on record, but few could have imagined the raw crush of sound that came from the hands, feet and lungs of the baby-faced guy in a red jumpsuit and his pig-tailed older sister.
Jack and Meg White look like a modern-day Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello—all head bobs, shy smiles and endearing glances. And then they plug in. Jack White gets every desirable crunch, wail and snarl from his vintage Valco Resoglass guitar and Fender Twin Reverb amp, moving with no fear among percussive rhythm playing, biting lead guitar work and country-style finger-picking. Meg White is the perfect drummer—sensing exactly when to thrash, pound and wail, and when to do nothing but hit the high-hat or floor tom on every other beat.
Wednesday’s show featured most of the songs from the Stripes’ most recent album White Blood Cells, which is, thus far, the album of the millennium. After opening with “Dead Leaves”, the band moved right into “I Think I Smell A Rat”, featuring Jack’s yelps and snarls over a vamp-like rhythm part. The band then downshifted into Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene”, a tune Jack claims is one of his favorite to sing, probably because it’s right in his vocal wheelhouse. Well, he hit it out of the park, and then turned out crowd favorite “Hotel Yorba”, a tribute to a Detroit budget hotel rumored to have housed the Beatles on their tour of the Midwest.
The Stripes work without a set list, vibing off some sort of sibling internal awareness of each other’s next move. Or perhaps the synchronicity is a result of a bond the two developed while married. (Myths persists that these two are not siblings, but a divorced couple—although their publicist maintains that this rumor is the result of a major media source taking a joke seriously.) Regardless, the timing and coordination between the two is perfect to the point of being freakish, as if some puppeteer above stage is controlling every tempo change and mood shift.
Perhaps the highlight of the night was back-to-back cover songs “Lovesick” and “Death Letter”. The rendition of “Lovesick”, from Dylan’s phenomenal 1997-release Time Out of Mind, saw the multi-talented singer moving between keyboard and guitar parts, and belting out the chorus “I’m sick of love, but I’m in the thick of it.” (Ironic, considering the rumors about Jack and Meg’s romantic past). The Stripes cover a few Dylan songs (including “Isis” and “One More Cup of Coffee”), and Jack proclaims Nashville Skyline is his favorite Dylan album, but “Lovesick” seemed the perfect showcase for Jack’s keen sense of melody and phrasing.
On “Death Letter”, a Son House song that appears on the White Stripes’ second release, De Stijl, Jack demonstrated his guitar virtuosity. With his slow, nasty slide guitar work and those mournful lyrics, Jack’s version of “Death Letter” evokes Led Zeppelin’s cover of blues standard “In My Time of Dying”. And although Jack White apparently hates the comparison, he does sing at times in the soulful, sexual blues-rock voice of a young Robert Plant. Of course, Jack White is doing the work of both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and don’t think for a second that he’s another in the line of Led-clones. He moves easily between the vocal styling of a Ray Davies, on “You’re Pretty Good Looking for a Girl”, to the throaty snarl of the late, great Bon Scott, on “Offend in Every Way”.
The Stripes finished their 75-minute set with a version of Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X”, featuring Meg on lead vocals. Jack sings the song on the B-side of the “Hotel Yorba” single, but Meg’s version made for a fantastic ending to the show and got a great ovation from the stiff and restrained (ill-prepared, perhaps?) Boston crowd. Moments later, the pair returned for a one-song encore, “Screwdriver”, off their self-titled debut, and the song they claim is the first they wrote together.
After the show, Jack came out and signed autographs for the few fans that remained. He seemed nervous and quiet, not saying much except “thank you” and “Meg’s backstage—she’s really tired.” And although their promotion booth feature a great variety of T-shirts and posters, the White Stripes seem to be taking in stride the copious hype and media attention. They’ve reportedly denied an endorsement deal from Proctor & Gamble and turned down $1 million to appear in a Gap commercial. Pretty impressive, considering Jack and Meg are the youngest of eleven children, from a working-class city.
The Stripes have also stayed true to their blues/soul/punk-rock sound. While at times they sound like everything from the Velvet Underground to Sabbath to the Pixies, Jack and Meg have perfected their own sound, and are pumping out tunes at an impressive rate (they recorded White Blood Cells in three days, and they will begin work next month on a new album, tentatively titled Elephant). In this day of one-hit wonders and video-driven music, it’s natural to be worried about wasting your time (and your $15) investing in an album by a trendy band. But, fear not—the White Stripes are a sure thing. In fact, you should run out right now and get tickets to a White Stripes show near you, and you should then go buy all of their albums and listen to them for about a month.
But when a band is so great and prolific so soon, you can’t help but wonder, “what next?” By the end of the year, these two 20-somethings will have released four remarkable studio albums, put on a couple of the best tours in recent history, and have produced one of the coolest videos of all time (see the video for “Fell In Love With a Girl”, and you’ll never look at LEGO blocks the same way again). Jack’s discovered and produced some of Detroit’s best current talent—the Von Bondies and Soledad Brothers—but what will become of his own music? Are he and Meg content to take the same, minimalist approach to their music for another five years, or will they sacrifice their chemistry and versatility for a more conventional, full band approach? For certain, they can’t get any heavier. Bob Mould and Frank Black have proven that it’s possible for post-punk icons to stick around for a while and continue creating meaningful music—with or without the commercial success that accompanied their younger days. Let’s just hope that the White Stripes don’t follow the lead of the two most famous Detroit-area rock bands—The Stooges and MC5—burning hot and loud for a few years, and then just melting away.