Stripes open garage door

By Whet Moser

We arrived a bit late for the show, partly because we were at a bar, and partly because we hadn’t had the opportunity to hear some clips from the opening act, the Clone Defects,1 and their name seemed a bit off-putting.

It was kind of a shame. I caught their last song, a punked-up soul number “dedicated to Otis Redding,” by a lead singer/guitarist who looked eerily like Terry Bradshaw, and ripped out by three other extremely sketchy-looking guys. It didn’t quite destroy the audience, but at least pushed it around a bit. It was loud and unintelligible with a pretty nice guitar solo, which made me a bit more sympathetic to the branding of the headliners, the White Stripes, as garage rock.

Then the Clone Defects left, the lights went up, and The Music Man came on over the speakers, and the Stripes’ roadies came out looking like extras from Guys and Dolls, in red-and-black fey-mafia suits straight out of the early rounds of the NBA draft. Half the press section was singing along to “76 Trombones.” I started to wonder what in the hell was going on.

What commenced was half garage rock and half musical theater. It’s not that there was dialogue between the music—singer/guitarist Jack White couldn’t stop playing long enough to do any stage patter -but this was really careful, dramatic showmanship with distorted vocals, distorted guitar, and torrents of loud music.

Jack hauled ass on stage, dressed in tight red pants and a tighter red shirt, going straight to an all-red speaker and starting the show with some eagerly awaited feedback. He proceeded into “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” one of their dark, mid-tempo numbers. There are some gentle country licks on the album version, but J.W. laid intense distortion on it—which didn’t really depart for the entire set—creating a wall of noise that wouldn’t let up. He gave Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick” a similar treatment, beginning at the organ with primitive, Southern-gothic chords, then breaking open one of Dylan’s saddest songs with big, angry power chords.2 It was pretty terrifying, especially given drummer Meg White’s jackhammer style, a simple, loud, filler-free drumming that pretty much just keeps rhythm and rattles tonsils,3 aided by a flotilla of drum mics.

There’s a gentility and sweetness to the White Stripes’ music that other “garage revival” bands don’t share, and after the set started to vacillate between raucousness and doom, I missed that.

That’s about when the whole sense of theatrics, as promised by their set-up,4 returned. All of a sudden M.W. stopped drumming, J.W. took his hands off his guitar, and started into an a cappella version of “You’re Pretty Good Looking,” sounding like Dean Martin recovering from laryngitis. I guess I should have been disappointed, since it’s my favorite song in their catalog, and I was for the first verse, but as it happened it was a goofy break from a mostly emotionally leveling set. It didn’t rock out, but it made me giggle.

Similarly, J.W. was astute enough to recognize that he’d written a pretty damn campy song in “I Think I Smell a Rat,”5 and redeemed it by falling into a Vincent Price voice. Not what I was expecting from their press, or from their opening act. But it became clear that, despite the heaviness of their live sound, J.W. is most likely a charming and pretty nice person, not without an odd sense of humor, who happens to be able to wail. Consider an example: when the crowd started to hesitantly clap to “We’re Going to Be Friends”, a Kinks-ish6 song about making a friend in elementary school,7 J.W. interjected with: “No, clap along, it’s cool. I like it.” Which in the context of the song, was just unimaginably sweet.

You may be gagging right now. If so, you should know this: their version of “Stop Breaking Down” is worth the price of admission, even when the price of admission is $24. Granted, everyone covers this damn song, and their album version, off their first LP8, is basically the sound of a band learning that noise is fun. In concert, though, it was shockingly good: J.W.’s bluesy, psychedelic slide guitar was faster and more lucid than most anything I’ve heard. Their music is regularly described as “crude” and “primitive,” but J.W. is actually an insanely talented guitarist. If his playing is dumb, it’s dumb like a fox.

Somewhere around 2 a.m. the audience dragged them back out to do a cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Boll Weevil,” about a boll weevil fleeing from a farmer. J.W. got us all singing the refrain, “he’s looking for a home, he’s looking for a home,” and then we all went home, rocked out, tired, and for that hour of the morning, in good spirits.

Footnotes, errata

1 I went to their Geocities-hosted web page—now that’s indie cred—and found that they’d exceeded their maximum download allotment for the month. That’s beyond indie cred. The Strokes could learn from this.

2 Cf. the Dylan version on Time Out of Mind, which he sings as if at the bottom of a lake with a pistol in his mouth.

3 Allow me a diatribe for a moment. M.W.’s drumming gets props, for the most part, in the music press. Greg Kot, reviewing the Stripes’ first date at the Metro, writes “her crude style is well-suited to Jack’s over-the-top blues yarns.” Which is sort of true, but over the course of the evening, her determinedly repetitive style just wore me down. It’s suited to their relatively crude style in general, but J.W. is something of a master of timing, adding texture to the songs with dramatic moments of silence or a single note between chords. His guitar playing has what M.W. is missing, that moment of weightlessness where the expected note doesn’t arrive, allowing the beat to come rolling back in double-time. I was really tired at the end of this concert—physically tired—and this might have something to do with it. Anyway.

4 Which is something of an act in itself. Don’t miss it if they come back.

5 “I think I smell a rat / walking down the street / carrying a baseball bat / I think I smell a rat…”

6 Not kidding here.

7 Not kidding about this either: “Tonight I’ll dream while in my bed / when silly thoughts go through my head / about the bugs and alphabet….”

8 J.W.: “Do you guys mind if we play some songs off our first album?” How can you not fall for that?