I was thinking last night about the first time I saw The White Stripes. It was spring 2001, and I was in LA to interview Queens Of The Stone Age. The night before I met up with Josh Homme, I went to the Troubadour to see this duo who were just starting to be talked about a lot by some of the smarter music business people back home.
They were amazing, of course, and I came back home and wrote a review for NME saying something like they were the best band in the world. They had such charisma, such presence, such virtuosity, such wonderful tunes. But I found it hard to imagine that such a compact, wild band could ever be huge. Surely Jack and Meg White would get lost when they were put on a big festival stage, for instance.
Well, I got that wrong. Tonight The White Stripes sound huge. We are at Wireless, the festival in Hyde Park where pushy men try and flog you credit cards rather than drugs. The bill today is largely packed with great screes of corporate indie tosh, although apparently The Only Ones were pretty good (I think Farah is going to write something about this later on the Festivals blog).
Things improve, though, when the Queens arrive. Initially, the set is pretty similar to the 100 Club gig I reviewed here a few weeks ago. But “Sick Sick Sick” now sounds even better, a great example of the way Josh Homme (who I turned on to The White Stripes, if I can show off for a second; he went to see them the night after me on that LA trip, since I raved about them so much in our interview) and his latest accomplices have mastered a sort of precision derangement.
The most entertaining of these is the new bassist, who’s like an excitable puppy alongside such road-hardened pros (the new keyboard guy, incidentally, is Dean Fertita, who played alongside Jack White in The Raconteurs). There’s a strange moment in “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer”, when he’s called upon to give the bloodcurdling “COCAINE!” shout, and he does this exuberant, shrill impression of Nick Oliveri. All good, though, especially, as ever, “Song For The Dead”.
Homme’s steely purpose is quite a contrast to the spur-of-the-moment ragings of Jack White. But tonight, he seems comparatively businesslike. Last time I saw the Stripes play was at Alexandra Palace on the “Get Behind Me Satan” tour, on a night when Jack was in a foul mood about something NME had written. It was a slashing, tempestuous set that threatened to spiral out of control, even when he was playing the marimba.
Tonight, though, he’s commanding and, though clearly inspired, relatively businesslike. The epic shredding of “Death Letter”/”Motherless Children” is stunning, but he no longer ends it on his back by the drum riser. A summer of hard touring has evidently inspired him to conserve his energy a little.
But he’s far from restrained in this fabulous, surprisingly hit-packed set. No matter how many times I see The White Stripes, they still have a freshness, as if I somehow forget how good they are. It’s a grand spectacle tonight: giant screens replay the action through a red and white filter, playing out those little face-offs between Jack and the eternally serene Meg on a massive scale.
There are only three songs from “Icky Thump” – the broiling “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” and “I’m A Martyr For My Love For You”, plus an incendiary version of the title track. At this point, Jack is playing guitar and synth simultaneously, and it’s hard to tell which sounds are coming out of which instrument. That big riff is pure Jimmy Page, as I said in my review here. But that free splutter is very Hendrix tonight.
And whilst this might be a fractionally more controlled Stripes, the melodramatic highs can still be strikingly torrid: “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” is staggering here, especially.
On the way home, I go past Marble Arch, and it’s draped in red and white Stripes livery, a big daft bit of showing off which is actually rather impressive. And you know what? They deserve nothing less.
Oh yeah, our friends at NME have a setlist and some other news about the show here. Enjoy!