White-hot White Stripes just too small for the room

July 3, 2003



They've been hailed as the "Next Big Thing" by every music glossy in America. They're bringing a fresh new sound to modern-rock radio and MTV. And bandleader Jack White is dating Renee Zellweger.

Has success spoiled the White Stripes?

The answer, based on the first of the Detroit duo's two sold-out shows at the Aragon Ballroom Tuesday night, is yes--and no.

The anticipation level among the largely twentysomething crowd and the energy with which they greeted the White Stripes' best-known songs was more intense than at any show I've seen at the Aragon since Nirvana headlined two sold-out performances in the fall of 1993.

With raw, rollicking singles such as "Fell in Love With a Girl" (the breakthrough hit from the band's third album, 2001's "White Blood Cells"), "The Hardest Button to Button" and "We're Going to Be Friends," the White Stripes represent as much of a breath of fresh air in the stale world of post-alternative rock as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was in the pre-alternative days of hair metal and dance pop.

And, like Kurt Cobain, Jack White has charisma to burn--a certain seductive and brilliant star power that cannot be denied. (Just ask Renee.)

The difference is that the White Stripes were never designed to make the jump from underground rock clubs to arenas.

While the stresses of that leap clearly took their toll on Cobain, the recent publication of his journals and his enduring fondness for metal giants such as Black Sabbath reveal that at least part of him yearned for and sought superstardom.

In contrast, Jack White genuinely seems to view the hype and hoopla that's greeted his humble, bluesy, garage-rock art project as a completely unexpected surprise. He's treated it with a smirk, a shrug and a wonderfully punk nonchalance.

But that still left him with the problem of filling the cavernous confines of the Aragon, and pleasing the 4,500 people who packed the room each night to see the band support its fourth album, "Elephant."

The two dozen songs that the White Stripes performed on Tuesday would have been killer at Metro, and they would have been absolutely incendiary at the Empty Bottle, the clubs where the group performed during earlier tours. But something was missing at the Aragon, and it wasn't only because of the notoriously muddy sound.

The duo's spare instrumentation actually helped in the giant setting. The Aragon can swallow the loudest bands whole, but the Stripes cut through the murk by keeping the focus on the core elements of Jack White's endearingly adenoidal vocals and his searing feedback and slide guitar work, along with ex-wife (not sister) Meg White's gleefully primitive rhythmic pounding.

At their best, the White Stripes evoked the Jimmy Page-era Yardbirds in full rave-up mode, as filtered through the Sex Pistols. And they should be lauded for introducing a crowd that would never think of setting foot at Bluesfest to the sounds of Hound Dog Taylor, John Lee Hooker and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

The set had several powerful highlights, including Meg White's lead vocal on the spartan but fetching ditty "In the Cold, Cold Night" and Jack White's bravura rendition of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." And, as always, it was a joy to watch Jack's flights on his bargain-basement Airlines guitar as he wordlessly cued his former spouse through improvised jams that she navigated as if by ESP.

But the band's trademark shtick--the red and white outfits, the matching stage set, and the roadies decked out in black suits and bowler hats--wasn't enough to compensate in a space where lasers and fireworks can seem understated.

In the end, Jack White's decision to ride the wave of success wherever it will take him only undermined the power of sounds that would have been much better enjoyed in a more intimate setting. Some garage bands should never stray too far from the garage.

Openers Whirlwind Heat (whose debut album was produced by Jack White) had even less reason to be on stage at the Aragon.

The Grand Rapids, Mich., trio furiously flailed away on bass, drums and Moog synthesizer, flaunting frantic energy over technical competence or any semblance of songcraft. But the "studied primitives" routine was old when Pussy Galore did it in the 1980s, and one number into a 10-"song" set, their act was already old and annoying.