Chicago’s Empty Bottle doesn’t spend a lot of time feng shui’ing itself. The décor – mostly old handbills and spray paint – gathers on the walls like ancient gardening equipment in your parents’ garage. Scattered, tired versions of those adhesive stars that glow in the dark put up a good fight, but they can’t compete with the fog from 300 Lucky Strikes. A dilapidated bar leans in one room; another features a pool table sharing space with uprooted thrift store couches. In the far corner of the venue lies a triangular stage, adorned with colorful drapery seemingly pilfered from an Italian matron’s special “company” living room. Though tinged with grime after years of sweat, heat, and Rock and Roll, the drapes can still glimmer when the drummer’s fan blows their gold fringe around.
On a recent evening, the raiment was further accented by the flag of Detroit City. In its four corners lie the colors of France, Great Britain, and America, the three nations that have ruled the city. The city’s seal takes up the middle, with the slogan in Latin: RESURGET CINERISUS. ‘It Shall Rise From the Ashes’ – A statement that refers to Detroit’s vaunted musical history as much as to the crumbling city itself. On Friday night, D-Town’s own White Stripes brought their slash-and-burn blues rock to The Empty Bottle, and represented the vibrant, beating, resilient heart of their hometown.
Jack White plays guitar and sings. Meg White plays the drums, facing her counterpart as he leaps between two microphones. Dressed in matching red and white outfits, with their instruments continuing the motif, the duo’s look is almost Scandinavian in its plainness. Indeed; their sophomore effort, 2000’s De Stijl, shares its name with a 20th century Dutch art movement advocating pure abstraction and simplicity. This focused approach carries to the music. Clean lines of guitar flow out in an arc; Meg’s drumming is like Neal Peart with half his limbs. Their music is blues-based, but its suprising sonic punch is all Rock and Roll. Elements of and references to country & western, Brill Building pop, and even Cole Porter show up in Jack White’s guitar and lyrics, as well as his passionate vocal delivery. With his drummer follwing faithfully along, he pries torrid streams of notes from his fleet of guitars, singing along with himself in a voice that sounds almost childlike when he hits the high notes. Too many influences? Maybe. But think of the source. Detroit, a midwestern city linking two great lakes, has always been a crossroads. 3 nations have ruled it; 3 corporations now control it. The soul and groove of Motown Records shares space with the aggression of The MC5 and The Stooges, and Ted Nugent’s cock-rock soloing ties it all together. White Stripes hear all of this. Jack White spews it out of himself while Meg lays down a beat as straightforward as a Midwestern highway. And the sign reads MEMPHIS – 700 MILES.
Chicago’s music-watching community is notorious for standing still. The fellow in the big glasses and skinny pants in the front row could be seeing his favorite band of all time, and you’d only detect a barely perceptible nodding of the head. White Stripes destroyed this apathy in a wash of red, white, and reverb guitar. After propelling themselves along for almost an hour, Jack and Meg returned for an encore that reached for a third gear. With a quick “Thank You” and an embarrassed, flattered bow, Jack was gone to the green room. Meg sat down on the drum riser, lit a smoke and took in the cheers and whistles. It certainly was a sight – 200 jaded Chicago music scenesters screaming and clamoring for more of White Stripes’ stripped-down, re-built Rock and Roll. After a pep talk, Jack White returned to the triangular stage, crushed out his cigarette (had to be Marlboro – red and white), placed his feet beneath his city’s colorful flag, and with a nod to his bandmate began a final encore of aggressive, plaintive blues rock that made those drapes shimmer.
And Detroit Rock rose from the ashes.