Collectively known as the White Stripes, Jack and Meg White aren’t your typical rock stars. The Detroit-based duo is an oddity – a Delta blues fan who plays a cheap-looking oblong guitar and his “sister” (ex-wife, actually), who can’t muster anything more than the most basic drum lines. Oh, and let’s not forget that they only dress in red, white and black at all times. Still, four years after their self-titled debut album was released on a small local label, the Stripes have gained international fame. The band was poised to play for a crowd of more than 4,000 at GW’s Smith Center last Saturday night.
Even before they walked onstage, the Stripes made their presence known. Old cartoons from the ’40s and ’50s were projected on a screen behind the stage, pointing out the innocence and ignorance of an earlier time- a consistent theme in the band’s lyrics. Noise-rock opener Whirlwind Heat sounded superficially antagonistic in comparison to the Stripes’ garage-blues, but Jack White must like them, because he produced their last album.
The Stripes’ dynamic set included both obvious choices and pleasant surprises. They played their best material from the two albums that made them famous, White Blood Cells and Elephant, including the only Stripes song featuring Meg White on lead vocals, “In the Cold, Cold Night,” and a rendition of “Ball and Biscuit” that segued into a slow, sexy version of “Fell in Love with a Girl.”
Predictably, the crowd’s strongest reaction was to “Seven Nation Army,” the Stripes’ biggest single to date. Their hyper-accelerated performance of “The Hardest Button to Button” pushed the crowd into a burst of Clash-like energy. The hits rolled out, but both the band and crowd gave equal attention to more obscure songs. The crowd embraced early material, B-sides and a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” as warmly as the hits. An extended version of De Stijl’s blues standard, “Death Letter,” was arguably the best performance of the evening.
The White Stripes appeared more mature than the pair that was introduced to the public in 2001. Musically, Jack’s slippery, blues-inflected garage riffs were as incendiary as ever, and Meg’s drumming sounded tighter than the sugar-high, seventh-grade style of which she’s often accused. The band has obviously handled the transition to fame better than the huge acts of the early ’90s like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Guns ‘n’ Roses. The Stripes were aware of their audience’s burgeoning love and chose to embrace it rather than spurn it.
Jack White didn’t hurl any obscenities at the crowd or condemn the music press. He merely thanked the crowd for coming to see the show and asked them to sing along to the show’s closing number, a rendition of Leadbelly’s “Boll Weevil.” He said the last verse was about himself, then sang, “If anybody asks you people who sang you this song/You tell them it’s Jackie White, he’s done been here and gone.” Every voice in the Smith Center responded, chanting, “He’s looking for a home.”
White’s left his little room and has yet to find what he’s looking for, but he’s still climbing and running.