White Stripes spin the blues at Metro

July 14, 2002


"Tell them who sang you this song," the leader of the White Stripes howled midway through a fiery set at Metro. "Jackie White sang you this song!"

He did indeed. And with this victory-lap U.S. club tour, which celebrates the group's smash success in the U.K. and its breakthrough on American radio with the hit single "Fell in Love With a Girl," Jack White secured his position as one of the most galvanizing rockers of his generation.

Often cited among the wave of frenetic "New Garage" bands that includes the Hives and Mooney Suzuki, the White Stripes' short but passionate set Thursday night during the first of two sold-out shows at Metro showed that the Detroit duo actually has much deeper roots.

While the music was indeed delightfully raw and frantic, guitarist-vocalist Jack White and his drummer and ex-wife Meg (whom he repeatedly called his "big sister") reached back beyond the amped-up rhythm & blues that inspired the original "Nuggets" bands, as well as many of the New Garage acts, to offer their own distinctive take on the haunted Delta and country blues of Hound Dog Taylor or John Lee Hooker.

They did this with delightful irreverence and a fair amount of gleeful shtick--performing in their trademark red and white outfits and encouraging the crowd to participate by singing and clapping along--but they never resorted to the kind of hollow showboating evinced by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, or the awkward irony displayed by Beck.

To the Stripes, every song is a cover, and every song is an original, because they are all dependent on the energy of the moment. "The only way I can get in touch with a song every time we play it is to break it up as much as possible and destroy it and recover it," Jack White told me in a recent interview. "It's like we're doing a cover version of a song I wrote."

Tearing through songs such as "We're Going To Be Friends" and "Hotel Yorba" from the band's much-lauded 2001 album "White Blood Cells," as well as a sampling of tunes from the older "De Stijl," the White Stripes were all about passion and immediacy. It didn't matter a whit if the young crowd had never heard of any blues recorded before Stevie Ray Vaughan; Jack and Meg helped them connect with the spirit of the music through the sheer force of their performance.

Hammering away at a cheap Airlines guitar plugged into a 100-watt Sears Silvertone amp, Jack dropped to his knees to play chaotic slide; attacked his effects pedals to create waves of feedback, and bounded between two microphones, one of which was set to distort or echo his voice to add extra texture to the mid-song rave-ups.

Through it all, Meg pounded on her snare and floor-tom with single-minded intensity. While she has been mocked by some critics, her primitive but propulsive rhythms are exactly what the music needs (a more technical drummer would simply distract), and she followed Jack's spontaneous cues and on-the-spot alterations with a sensitivity bordering on ESP.

After a dozen tunes (including a snippet of the garage classic "Farmer John" and more copped blues licks than can be found on the first four Led Zeppelin albums) and a one-song encore, the Stripes left the stage without ever playing their hit--a perverse move that the packed crowd seemed to respect.

The balcony at Metro was filled with music-industry executives buzzing about a new energy in rock that recalls the early days of the alternative era. So far, the Stripes have been reluctant to play into the hype with the sort of pandering moves that might facilitate stardom. It's just one more reason to applaud them, and it sure smells like teen spirit to me.