Rock'n'roll's leading dysfunctional couple play their biggest UK shows yet

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The Thin Red Line

The White Stripes

ALEXANDRA PALACE, LONDON

Wednesday January 21, 2004

Taking over the old hilltop pleasuredome in north London, where The Strokes also recently played, seems like a calculated opportunity for The White Stripes to put one over on their great rivals. For their biggest UK headline shows to date, the Stripes have packed in an unmistakably larger crowd than the New Yorkers attracted earlier in the month, fans having to shove and crane their necks to see their heroes as stardom makes them more remote.

That’s not the only difference from when I saw them at the start of their planet-trampling world tour in Wolverhampton, almost a year ago. Then, there was a coiled tension to Meg and Jack on stage, and they were watched from the audience by Meg wannabes dressed in red and white. This time, there are Guns N’Roses T-shirts in the crowd, and the ‘stripes’ are mostly in black, matching Jack’s darkly manic, near hysterical mood. In a scooped-neck T-shirt, beefier than the scrawny, anaemic boy we used to know, legs braced and black mane falling around his shoulders, he looks like a guitar hero from the darkest days of the ’70s, and immediately drags us into his own Satanic Sabbath.

In a largely pre-Elephant set, “Hotel Yorba” is among the first songs transformed into White Metal. Taken at a frantic pace, it’s split in two by a blizzard of crackles and shrieks from Jack’s guitar, in the sort of solo that to me has always reeked of pre-punk excess but here is dragged back to something primitive and powerful. It’s Jack’s voice, though, that really shocks. I’ve never noticed it as anything special before, but tonight it recalls Robert Plant at one moment, Cab Calloway the next, and even Al Jolson as he inexplicably breaks into “Shine On, Harvey Moon”. He sounds like he could be drunk or high, and certainly pinballing inside a space we can’t reach. As “Seven Nation Army” causes a mass roar from the crowd, he sounds disconnected from Meg’s steady beat, screaming, with real heat: “And the message coming from my eyes says LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Perhaps, like his alleged beating of The Von Bondies’ Jason Stollsteimer, it’s explained by his going through the Bends of true fame. But the softer, older songs tonight suggest the turbulent emotions he’s always kept inside?like “We’re Going To Be Friends”, with its Ray Davies-like longing for lost innocent days and resentment of maturity. The constant thorn his band’s existence twists in him is also clear as he turns on his sister/wife to glower, “Right, Meg? Are we all FRIENDS yet?” Meg, as usual, stays aloof from his excesses. And yet moments later, she is reaching up towards him as he leans down towards her, as if puckering lips for a kiss neither will allow, an embrace that is beyond them, unpermissible. No wonder he’s fucked up.

About halfway through Jack settles down, and the guitar solos lose their lustre, sounding again like ’70s self-indulgence, something which, like this high-concept band, is being stretched until it finally finds its limit, and snaps. Until then, however, the Stripes stay strangely magical.