Few bands in rock
history and none on the current music scene have ever done more with less
than the White Stripes.
When the Detroit duo
last performed in Chicago at the Aragon on New Year's Eve 2003, they were in
danger of being swamped by their own success. The band has always been an
incendiary live act, and hits such as "Seven Nation Army" were undeniable.
But the 4,500-seat venue -- the last step before the arenas -- diluted the
intensity of the group's garagey blues-rock stomp, and guitarist-vocalist
Jack White's charisma didn't quite light up the entire vast ballroom.
On Monday, during the
first of three sold-out nights at the regal 3,600-capacity Auditorium
Theatre, the strength of White's considerable personality reached the last
row of the vertigo-inducing upper balcony, while the force of his searing
guitar and the primal pounding of drummer Meg, the ex-wife he insists on
calling his "big sister," never sounded sexier or more powerful.
Touring in support of
their fifth album, "Get Behind Me Satan," the band added a few noticeable
frills: Its trademark two-tone stage set got a bit more fancy, with potted
plants and an elaborate backdrop; Meg stepped out from behind her Charlie
Watts-spartan drum set to assault two red-and-white tympanies on "Passive
Manipulation" and a pair of bongos on "As Ugly as I Seem," and Jack
occasionally put down his cheap white-and-red AirLine guitar to hammer on a
Steinway grand piano, a Fender Rhodes keyboard or, most memorably during
"The Nurse," a red-and-white marimba.
"The nurse should
not be the one who puts salt in your wounds/But it's always with trust that
the poison is fed with a spoon/When you're helpless with no one to turn to,
alone in your room," Jack sang, evoking the timeless dread of Robert
Johnson or the Carter Family for an audience, the vast majority of whom
probably had never heard of either. He punctuated the creepy vibe of these
lines by adding bursts of wailing feedback guitar -- a neat trick, since he
never left the marimba. He'd left his ax feeding back on the floor near his
amp, and he controlled the noise by stepping on a foot pedal.
guitar gods go, Jack evokes Jeff Beck circa the Yardbirds. His chops are
considerable, but he is more interested in coloring the music than in firing
off solos designed to show his prowess, a la the more indulgent Eric
Clapton. And Jack is a better dancer and much more of a punk than either of
those older six-string heroes. As Jack careered across the stage, the first
three or four songs of the 90-minute set were unleashed in a frenzied blur,
merging into one furious assault veering on the edge of chaos, and as
irresistible in its forward momentum as the Ramones at their best.
Jack White is hands
down the most charismatic presence rock has produced since Kurt Cobain,
though thankfully, at age 30, Jack shows no signs of Cobain's
self-destructiveness. But Meg is no less vital to the mix, despite what you
may have read.
"Meg White may be
[Jack's] muse, best friend or soul mate, and she exudes a steady and
positive energy onstage, but she is a lousy drummer and only a passable
singer," New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in a review of the new
album. Sexism is the only conceivable reason for such a thoroughly
On Monday, Meg deftly
followed the serpentine twists and turns of her ex-husband's spontaneous
improvisations, providing the wonderfully minimal, rock-solid cymbal crash
or Godzilla-size backbeat at exactly the right place time and time again. It
is impossible to imagine the band with any other drummer, and to suggest
otherwise is like saying the Velvet Underground would have been better if
Ginger Baker had replaced Maureen Tucker, or the Ramones could have been
improved if they'd hired Bill Bruford of Yes.
Their maximalist take
on the minimalist approach is what makes the White Stripes a great band, and
their current tour suggests that they may not reach the limitations of their
intentionally limited lineup for another five albums, if ever -- even though
Jack is looking to expand his extracurricular activities.
Opening for the White
Stripes on Monday and Tuesday was the thoroughly uninspiring Cincinnati
garage-rock trio the Greenhornes, who collaborated with Jack White on
Loretta Lynn's 2004 album "Van Lear Rose," while tonight's opener is
singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. White is reportedly gearing up to release
an album with the Raconteurs, featuring the Greenhornes' Jack Lawrence and
Patrick Keeler on bass and drums, and White and Benson sharing lead guitar,
vocal and songwriting chores.