After seeing a good, but not great, Stripes show at Bonnaroo, I wasn't exactly sure how they'd stand up on their proper tour. After a string of dates encompassing every Canadian province and territories (yes, even the obscure ones) combined with a secret 50-person show each afternoon, the American tour that started in Portland seemed to be anti-climactic news-wise at least. Within their first notes at Portland, however, they proved that, though all the extra stuff was gone, the show itself had all the energy it ever had.
First up, however, was Dan Sartain. I had never heard of him before, but he blew the crowd away. Playing an old hollow-body, his three-piece group raced through song after song of what can only be described has half surf-rock, half grunge, with a little Elvis Costello thrown in for good measure. Sort of like the Beach Boys, if the Beach Boys were demonic vampires. If that helps at all. The two nights I saw him he apparently had a special guest drummer Ben Blackwell. Blackwell is the Whites Stripes official archivist, roadie, website manager...and Jack White's nephew. A damn good drummer too, very loose and fluid, keeping the beat without being constricted by it. Sartain cruised through songs like Flight of the Finch and PCS Beach USA that people were singing along to be the end, even throwing in a little bit of scat-beatboxing at one point. Definitely an artist I'd see again.
The break before the Stripes seemed to take forever, but the crew (all in black and red three piece suits with matching feathered fedoras) did have a lot to set up. Such as Jack's regular mic, Jack's piano mic, another pair of mics that would each only go to one channel, left or right, and a distortion mic on the back amp. And that's just so the guy can sing. The stage and backdrop was all solid red, including three stairs to a second level that they hadn't had at Bonnaroo.
Eventually they came on. Seeing shows in Portland is always an interesting experience, because the people are somewhat starved for big name groups, so they get very excited. A little too excited, as the pit quickly became dangerous, with people getting injured and everyone on the verge of falling down. I'm all for energy, but when it takes away from enjoying the show it becomes too much. Anyway, Jack was wearing all red, only broken up by a shiny red and white belt buckle proudly on display while Meg had black pants, and red and white stripes shirt, and a little sideways necktie thing that made her look like a very fashionable pirate. They stood ready to go, but the intro music didn't stop. So Jack started stomping his foot, ready to go, but the music kept playing. No acknowledgment of the audience though as they eventually decided to overpower the music and went into...noise. Lots of it, that eventually turned into Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground. They've opened most shows this tour with it and it's always enjoyable, though not hugely memorable compared to what was to come. Seemed a little faster than it is on record.
Another classic second song, they raced through When I Hear My Name at breakneck speed, going through the whole thing (including a solo) in under two minutes. Unfortunately, we were in a bad spot (or his mic was too low) because Jack's vocals were very difficult to hear. His deranged-man falsettos were barely audible. What was cool, however, was the lighting. Bonnaroo had been outdoors, so lights weren't an option, but that missed out on a lot. The blank red screen behind them was filled with their 40-ft tall shadow as they played. Watching Jack (which is where your attention is most of the time) with an enormous Meg behind him was a great view, but not as cool as his shadow. He looks insane enough in person, but a 40-ft tall silouhette made him look like Edward Scissorhands on guitar. Kind of creepy actually, but in a good way.
I expected Icky Thump next, and was pleased to hear the intro to the Dolly Parton cover Jolene. He played around with the riff a little, keeping it only barely recognizable, but otherwise it seemed a pretty standard rendition. After it was over he introded himself and his "big sister" Meg and mentioned this being their first time in Maine (not true for him though, as his band the Raconteurs played in Portland last November - see the review here) and then tried a little rhyme. "The rain...in Maine...falls....mainly...on...the stage?" Long, long pause where he looked confused and scratched his head. The longer he didn't do anything, the louder the audience got. "Repeat after me. The rain...in Maine...falls..." Another long pause (all for dramatic effect, my guess would be, and well executed at that). A few more times of this and then he got it right. The audience repeated and...
Bam, right into Effect and Cause, the song I was most hoping to hear off the new record. The guitar, a gorgeous white acoustic with a pick-shaped hole, was much louder and more jarring than on record, but it worked well. Unfortunately this was the first time of many I was distracted by the insanity of the audience and missed my favorite lines, "I'm not saying I'm innocent, in fact the reverse, but if you're headed to the grave you don't blame the hearse."
Just saying the name of Hotel Yorba got a huge response from the crowd, who pogo-sticked frenetically during the whole song. He switched to Meg's mic for the "4, 5, 6 ,7" part then switched guitars and played a riff so overwhelmed with distortion and feedback I couldn't make it out. When I finally did, I realized it was my favorite song, I Think I Smell a Rat. Only played the riff though, as he immediately transitioned into an old song on a new record, Little Cream Soda. This song was invented at an Ohio concert in 2003, but not put on record 'til 07. It was killer live as Jack rocked the songs memorable riffs for all they were worth.
Next up was another new song, one that had been a low of Bonnaroo. Tonight, however, it was far and away the highlight of the night, I'm Slowly Turning Into You. He started on organ, using his fist to cue a huge "YEAH" from the audience after every line which he seemed to love. After a verse he switched to guitar and started the chorus over by Meg's kit. He soon stopped singing and just went to the front of the stage letting the crowd belt the chorus. And then it really got going, with a solo that took him all around the stage, on top of the front amp and, finally, up those stairs to the second level. He walked across the platform with jerky stomps and each time his foot hit the floor a puff of smoke (baby powder I'm guessing) would shoot up. An awesome effect, soon enveloping his feet in smoke that exploded with each step. As he walked his guitar cord got tangled in one thing after another, leaving the crew to sprint around fixing it before it screwed Jack up. That also gives him the effect of being completely out-of-control, as every time he throws over a microphone or kicks a guitar he's got people in suits running around fixing it as he keeps playing, seemingly oblivious.
As he picked up the hollow body and the slide I thought Death Letter was up, but it turned out to be the third new song in a row, Catch Hell Blues. His slide work was amazing as always, but other than that the 12-bar blues wasn't too memorable.
Unfortunately my memory of the next two songs isn't great as I was distracted by some doped-up guy causing a disturbance next to me. We eventually got him ejected, but not before he'd ruined Do and The Hardest Button to Button. Button seemed to have lost most of its signature riff, but I might just have missed it amidst the commotion.
My favorite song off the new album was up next, A Martyr For My Love For You. Didn't have the memorable lead-in of two people being engaged as it did at Bonnaroo (read about that here), but everything else was just as good. It's a very complicated song, musically as well as lyrically, with a flamenco tint to it. Definitely a high for the group, and played to perfection. Even had some almost-complicated drumming.
Jack was sweating bullets by this point, so I wasn't surprised to see him give himself a bit of a break by playing In the Cold Cold Night. He went back and sat behind Meg's drums as he played, letting her come front and center to sing. Though exhaustion may have also been a factor, sitting almost out of sight and relinquishing the spotlight to her was a classy move. She gets a lot of flak for being a bad drummer, and certainly doesn't have the charisma JAck does, but the White Stripes couldn't exist without her any more than it could without him. She has a better voice than I remembered. It might get irritating after a while, but for only a song or two it's very nice.
Some bouncy little keyboard chords led into a song I never expected to hear (though apparently it's not rare this tour), Apple Blossom. This poppy little jingle made for a nice break from all the loud distortion, and it sounds much better with the keys than the original acoustic guitar. The show could have used a few more changes of pace like this.
Jack played a slow bluesy riff over and over again that I didn't recognize. When he started singing though, I couldn't believe it, a super-slow version of the originally frantic Astro. He only did one verse of it, but it was still a highlight before hitting that weird one-note-at-a-time keyboard thing for Icky Thump. I'm not a huge fan of it on the album, but it was much more enjoyable tonight. It might have been that that awful keyboard was quieter though, I don't know. He switched over to Meg's mic for the "white America" line though, which the audience cheered for. Those Maine liberals.
After a short encore break, they came back out and went right into Blue Orchid, the first song off of Get Behind Me, Satan they'd played. Songs from that album haven't been played that much this tour, but that's ok with me because at my first show in '05 they played the whole thing live. The rendition was as high-energy as ever, but even more memorable was the lighting, in which they seemed to unleash every trick they had. The stage darkened and a huge disco ball threw rotating flecks of red light everywhere. Then the started switching it between red and white flecks, then they strobed em. You could watch it on mute and it would have still been awesome.
From there right into the second Satan song, The Denial Twist, which Jack sang over by Meg's kit. Only a couple verses of that though before he threw that guitar down and grabbed the acoustic. I thought it would be We Are Going to Friends, a song I have no idea why is so popular as, but it turned out to be the super-rare Sugar Never Tasted So Good. It was very enjoyable, extended with a lot of solos, but I only vaguely knew it so I wasn't as excited to see it as I should have been.
Dammit, turns out I hadn't avoided Friends after all. Everyone loves that song, but it seems incredibly stupid and obnoxious. The crowd was so into it though that it was bearable, especially as Jack let us sing half the lines. From there, though, he went into another major highlight of the night, I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart on keys. Very similar to the album version, but a rarity that was well performed and well appreciated.
He then picked up the hollow-body and I knew it was almost over. Seven Nation Army featured an unusually long intro though, as he would play the famous riff, then just stand there stomping his foot for a while before playing it again. This long pause shows up again before the third verse. Though they do play it every show, it's nice to see them changing it up a little.
I hoped that wasn't the end (as it often has been recently), but luckily he went over and grabbed his Flyer guitar for one of the all-time great show closers by any band, Boll Weevil. The song was originally by Leadbelly, but has largely been rewritten. He did the standard long intro about "This is the last song, and it's about a creature that destroyed people's homes" and then encouraging the crowd to singalong before the "verse about myself" in a typically odd Jack White way. Needless to say, the "If anyone asks you people, who sang you this song, you tell em it was Jackie White, he's done been here and gone" got a roar of approval and from there Meg just pounded the drums while he led the audience in singing. One more loud chorus and it was over, with a brief bow from the two on the front amps, and then they were gone. Til tomorrow night.