Yes children, The White Stripes played a BIG ROCK SHOW at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.
Q: Can a two-person guitar n’ drums duet translate to an enormous venue?
A: Hard to believe, but…yes. but yes…
The Opening acts:
Porter Wagoner. Pushing 75? 80? Grey but still with that timeless bouffant/coif. Resplendently bedecked in a suit of blue rhinestone. Elegant, classy and classically country. Gotta love Jack for having opening acts like Porter, and Loretta Lynn. Wagoner and his six-piece are on Letterman Wednesday 7/25, worth catching.
Grinderman were apparently playing their first ever American show. The whole band looked like they had arrived by raft, except for Nick Cave, who looked like he crawled out of an OTB parlor somewheres in the vicinity of Times Square, circa the mid-70’s. I’m not a huge fan, but true to form, if anyone was going to have the larger than life character to carry the “big room,” he was a good choice. The combo took the stage to a tumultuous clatter, and soon enough Cave was doing his best Jim Morrison, and the speakers were awash in heavy distortion. The violent banging of maracas seemed to be a common thread throughout the Grinderman set. Special props to the chap in the suit on electric violin who looked like the offspring of an arranged mating of Tiny Tim and Richard Manuel. It never quite verged on monotony, ala the Bad Seeds, but did come close a few times…I’d have to say I prefer the psychedelic sludge Grinderman ground out to some of Cave’s other projects. About as different as you could get from Porter Wagoner’s pedal-steeled homilies, and thus brilliant in its own way.
The White Stripes were on next. And that’s “On” with a capital “O.” Jack White was obviously jazzed to be playing “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” and it showed. From the opening strains of “Dead Leaves…” til he finally walked off arm in arm with Meg an hour and fifty-two minutes later with the feedback from the closing note of “The Boll Weevil Song” still ringing in the monitors, Jack simply didn’t slow down. No going through the motions here. No mailing it in. It was simply pure emotion the whole way through. And as arena rock, it actually worked more often than not. For a band that’s touring constantly, you could tell that this was a special show of sorts .Lest we blasé residents forget, Madison Square Garden still has serious cachet out in the heartland. It wasn’t simply a 17,000 seat show in Orlando, say, or G-d forbid that new hockey arena they’re building out in Newark. To judge by Jack’s exuberance, and interaction with the crowd, you could tell that this was performance was felt as a pinnacle of sorts for the band.
The White Stripes keep things fresh by playing unlikely settings like (on the Canadian leg of this tour) small clubs in Nova Scotia, festivals in Manitoba, and community rec centers in Nunavut. They shall play smaller rooms again, in NYC, do not fear. But for one night, the Garden was theirs to “rawk.” Madison Square fucking Garden. Yeah.
The sound was appropriately sludgy. That’s how they like it. The volume was good and loud. And the music…. the guy next to me went crazy every time the slide came out. DEFINITELY evoking Zeppelin at their monster-rock blues peak in the same hall back in the Song Remains the Same Era. But more light hearted. Less self-indulgent, and always with a wink. I mean come on, Jack White grew up in the ‘KISS at Cobo Hall’ era. He knows shtick, and he knows noise, and he knows entertainment. And has obviously learned a trick or two after touring the arena circuit with his other band, The Raconteurs. If this was the proverbial “big rock show,” then on this night the White Stripes were all about making a racket, and making rock n’ roll FUN again.
And it was FUN… Suspend disbelief. Yes it’s great to see a two-piece garage band at a smaller venue, etc. etc. But with that knowing wink, Jack and Meg decided to play with the whole “rock star” idyll and bask in the excess of playing an “Arena Rock Show.” And like their music (simultaneously juiced up and stripped down?) this was old-school “arena rock” at its basic best.
Big sound. Big stage. Big Lights. Big crowd. But no frills. No click tracks. No pre-recorded parts. No huge video monitors. No set-list. Just Guitar, drums, an organ used on a few numbers, and a couple of Jack’s keyboard-y gizmos that he played fills on in between larger-than-life guitar riffs.
Jack and Meg have nailed the art of being “The White Stripes” perfectly.
The music is reductive and derivative – but somehow manages to be completely original at the same time. Through some unspecified gift, they manage to be minimalist and bombastic all at once. Blatantly indebted to their influences, yet thoroughly unique. These are the White Stripes. ‘Twas ever thus.
Even the personas, the lyrics, the vibe… all are riddled with affectation, yet in some way still resonate as completely heartfelt on some level. I can’t recall a band outside of the Ramones who seemed to believe every phrase they sang with as much gusto as Jack White does when he’s center stage. And like the Ramones, The Stripes are all about Fun, Noise, and the perfectly balanced paradox of pretense meeting emotional honesty… with tongues in cheek and power chords burning.
The crowd was interesting. A lot of whites (and not just onstage…) Not as many high-school kids as back in my day of Garden rock shows, but a good mix of college aged kids to people in their 30s and 40s. There was a disruptive drunk with a prosthetic leg who briefly threatened the equilibrium in my section (the old “yellow seats” for you native NY-ers). Half the floor was given to General Admission, which was nice. I spent a tense eight minutes directly behind a midget in the beer line, which was unsettling, because I kept thinking that if there weren’t so many people around he might’ve gone for my throat, but I was able to put such anxiety behind me once the music started…
Jack White no longer looks like Michael Jackson. He was re-ragged in red, sporting a De Stijl-era haircut, and playing about six different guitars (and a uke on “Little Ghost”.) Meg was in a red top and black slacks. From my vantage point, alas, I had a good view of her back the entire evening. She has a pretty back. The roadies/guitar techs were foppishly trumped out in pinstripes and derbies. Most of Porter Wagoner’s band watched enthusiastically from the wings the whole way. Jack talked to the audience throughout, making three separate references to his “big sister Meg,” (wink), thanking Porter and Grinderman, and introducing several of the numbers.
The show was nice and long. The new material got a good work out, though I only recognized “Icky Thump” and “You Don’t know What Love Is (You Only Do As You’re Told),”; Guess I really need to get the album! After a taking about an eight minute vocal chord-rejuvenating break at the set’s conclusion, Jack and Meg returned for an “encore” that actually went on for about a half an hour. No complaints here.
Other highlights….well, like their not-so-direct antecedents the Grateful Dead, no two White Stripes shows are the same, and any song from their canon of originals and covers is fair game on any given night. … My memory is a bit hazy, but “Jolene” made an early appearance. A full “I Think I Smell a Rat” was a nice change, and Meg notably took a break from her rudimentary drum pounding and made her “debut appearance at Madison Square Garden” singing a pretty and pitch-perfect “Cold, Cold Night” as Jack twanged behind an amplifier. (This was when she played a few organ notes to the delight of the crowd.)
Never afraid to play with their sound, “Fell in Love With a Girl” began as a country ballad before the inevitable squalling rev-up. Jack turned Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” into an audience sing along. Ditto on his self-referential version of the howling closing number, “Boll Weevil.” “Blue Orchid and Seven Nation Army” got the expected arena-show war-horse style workouts.
There were bluesy takes on “Ball and Biscuit” and what sounded like “Death Letter” with altered lyrics, coming on the heels of what sounded like “John the Revelator” with a different, clamorous chord structure. An absolute high point was “Doorbell,” with Jack and Meg taking a fairly innocuous cut off of Get Behind Me Satan, and turning it into a stomping, room-filling barn-burner. Another was a touching “We Are Going to Be Friends,” which really, truly brought a tear to my eye.
What the audience will doubtless remember (other than seven-dollar-plus beers) is the wailing, tangibly physical sound of Jack White’s guitar. Overall this was the dominant force. You could FEEL it. It was punishing,and it was cathartic. It filled the room. And in that sense, yes, the show succeeded at the arena level. Big time.
I guess The White Stripes are big time now, too. Bravo kids. Amen.
– Pete Millerman