Whites earn stripes with charismatic, high-energy show


August 31, 2005


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.

As blues-steeped 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 unwarranted dis.

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.