In my many concert travails I’ve had a chance to talk to plenty of other reviewers. When the talk turned to the White Stripes (whom I had yet to see live), the inevitable reaction was excitement: “You HAVE to go see them live! They are so much better on stage than on CD.”
I had heard this countless times before setting foot on Coney Island for my first White Stripes show, but the cynic in me (who, me - cynic?) screamed in my ear. He demanded that Jack and Meg knock me for a loop if they duo wanted to send that chip flying from my shoulder. At the end of the night, there was no chip but rather a limited edition poster for the two shows (they played the following night as well) on my arm.
First off, Brendan Benson is a must see. His all-too-short 30 minute set was loaded with poppy melodies and solid singing. Following that was the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based, the Shins. Their 40 minute set was loaded with cool swirling keyboards, jangly guitars, and an entertaining presence that won White Stripes diehards over easily.
On to the main portion of the show: the stage was nicely dressed in black, white, and red, the three colors associated with the band (though the white potted palms were a bit much). Meg’s peppermint candy drum kit was there, as was as tympani and, on the other side, a grand piano. Nearby were other keyboards, a line of guitars, a mandolin, and a marimba on a riser at the back of the stage.
When you listen to the Stripes on CD, especially their current release Get Behind Me Satan, you figure that overdubs were done in the studio to enrich their sound. After all, this was the release that featured only two purely guitar-centered songs; it saw Jack experimenting with piano, marimba, and a host of other instruments. My biggest question going into the show was how possible (or impossible) would it be to replicate that fullness on stage?
The answer? Mr. White is one of the most talented musicians around, and he manages it. Dressed in his current black, Zorro outfit (sans mask, but including top hat), Jack’s guitar spoke volumes (and with volume) on set opener, “Black Math”. Meanwhile, Meg, in a black dress, was equally impressive as she banged away behind her set.
I think too many people make too much of Meg’s drum skills (or lack thereof). The bottom line is that they fit with what Jack is trying to do, and her sometimes-askew forays help give the band its edgy sound. I mean, you wouldn’t be able to picture Neal Peart sitting in on drums. This is Meg’s domain, and as long as she has Jack’s backing, everyone else should just shut up and enjoy.
Meg has certainly improved in both technique and confidence—she even took a vocal turn on Elephant‘s “In the Cold, Cold Night” (to heartfelt applause). Call them what you will—ex-husband and wife (the truth) or as Jack continues to insist in concert, little brother and big sister (the lie)—these two work together like a well-oiled machine. One of the mics was placed so Jack could look at Meg while she drummed, and they locked on to more than just the groove; they were keyed into each other.
The new songs were simply awesome. Jack’s piano playing was stellar during the bouncy “My Doorbell” and “The Denial Twist”. The marimba got a good workout during “Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)” and “The Nurse”. Old favorites like “Death Letter”, “The Hardest Button to Button”, and “I Think I Smell a Rat” were crisply done. “Hotel Yorba” was the orchestrated audience sing-along number, but folks were doing plenty of that during “Fell in Love with a Girl” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” as well. Of course, “Seven Nation Army” was an anthem - a great release of energy from both band and fans.
With five albums, countless tours, a lifetime of experiences, and an adoring audience in tow, the White Stripes don’t shirk when it comes to their stage performance. Though fairly stoic, don’t let him kid you: Jack White is having the time of his life (as is Meg). And because of that, the crowds that see the duo play come out more enriched for it.
This sucker is penciled in as one of my five best concerts of 2k5 (a year which included Brian Wilson, System of a Down, and the Arcade Fire; I’m still waiting on Cream). The next time Jack and Meg set up their amps in your hometown, it’s best to ditch the cynicism and watch that chip go flying.