The White Stripes
Hammerstein Ballroom, New York, April 19, 2003
Everything about the White Stripes’ Hammerstein Ballroom show on April 19 felt a little oversize, a little out of focus. Part of it was their opening act, Loretta Lynn, whose celebrity is on another level from the Stripes, and whose icon status couldn’t help but dwarf theirs. But the show also felt crowded beyond regular rock-show conditions — fans jammed the vast main room (flat as a football field, allowing 0% visibility for anyone under 5′ 5″) and thronged in the lobby in long, barely-moving lines to buy drinks. Are they overselling rock shows now, like they do airplane flights, assuming some people will cancel? There were just too many people — it brought to mind footage of the Beatles playing their pop tunes in screaming football stadiums. Meg and Jack aren’t at that level yet, but their popularity is driving them into bigger and bigger venues, where their sound has to be amplified to the point of distortion.
The choice of Loretta Lynn for an opening act seemed to be part of the Stripes’ current association with country, though that appears to be more a matter of outfits than music. Dressing now like country music mavens, the Stripes’ persona is full of confusing cross-currents — Jack’s growing resemblance to Michael Jackson undercuts his fringed, C&W stagewear, and Meg’s Nashville look makes little sense since her one solo turn on the album is the Peggy Lee-esque “Cold Cold Night.” The clothes are a capricious impulse, then, but the effect is bewildering, like Madonna’s frequent self-reinventions that seemed designed to hide a confused mega-star behind established yet equally confused mega-stars like Marilyn Monroe.
With Lynn as an opening act (more about her later), one might expect the Stripes to debut some country-influenced material. Or present their only real foray into country so far, “Well It’s True That We Love One Another.” But they did neither, opening with “Dead Leaves in the Dirty Ground.” They didn’t hit a groove and it came off slightly rushed. A few more songs were the same way. “Hotel Yorba” cheered the crowd up. “Want to Be the Boy who Warms Your Mother’s Heart” was lovely, with Jack leaping from organ to guitar, and seeming engaged with the material for the first time.
Something felt subtly off. From where I was standing, Jack’s guitar was either too loud or mixed too muddily, which was a distinct detraction — it’s that guitar sound that defines the Stripes. And Meg’s drumming seemed perfunctory at best. In a long red dress and wearing her hair in the sweeping, country-ish do she sports on the Elephant album photos, Meg maintained her famously unassertive image, and she played her drums as if she could just barely summon the energy. At times she leaned sideways over her kit as if she could barely sit upright. While this languor made her seem like a voluptuary succumbing to a libidinal trance, it didn’t help her keep the beat. Sometimes she’d come to life, most often when Jack walked over and played directly in front of her. These moments had a real sexual charge, Meg pounding in response to his pelvic-thrusted guitar beats, staring into his eyes with a face that looked suddenly gleeful. Unfortunately, Jack didn’t seem as interested in this dynamic as she did, and he’d wander away, leaving her slumping again. The routine emphasized the degree to which Jack seems to be dragging this almost comatose partner in his wake. (Something else that emphasized it was the way Meg was led on and offstage by a heavyset man in a suit who held her hand like she was some frail legend already. What’s with this fragile-flower persona?)
Meg’s lackluster drumming coupled with Jack’s out-of-tune guitar made several numbers wince-worthy. We would have forgiven a lot if the Stripes had paused, retuned, perhaps bantered with the crowd, or just seemed to settle in. But the only thing Jack said was “Hello New York!” and the set hurtled to its brief conclusion with a few high points. “Mother’s Heart” was one; “Pretty Good Looking” was another. “Cold Cold Heart” got a huge ovation, but it seemed mostly in honor of the unflappable, alluring, barely-alive Meg. “She’s so sexy,” a man near me moaned as she modestly assumed the microphone. But her live singing is even more off-key and uneven than on record. On “I Think I Smell a Rat,” Jack seemed to enjoy himself, and they did a great, hard, churning version of “Screwdriver” which includes my favorite line of theirs: “Walkin’ down thirty-three, walkin’ down thirty-oh.” Jack got lost in few great guitar solos, and a few moments of singing when a wild abandon possessed him. But those moments were just glimpses of what the band can sound like at its best.
The Stripes’ slightly phoned-in, 40-minute performance was an even greater disappointment in contrast to their opener, Loretta Lynn, who managed to be both human (she forgot some lyrics) and consummately professional. Lynn belted out hits in her familiar, husky-yet-soaring voice, infusing with life and emotion even well known numbers like “You’re Lookin’ at Country” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Lynn’s all-out commitment to the music was like a lesson to the Stripes, who are admittedly far less experienced at presenting their material in massive venues, but still could learn a lot from Loretta about pacing, stage presence, and focus.
When Jack came on to sing two duets with Lynn, it was a kick because her poise gave him something to play off of. As they traded vocals on “Fist City” (at times it was hard to tell who was singing, because with no sightline and Jack’s high, gutsy voice, the man/woman distinction wasn’t always clear), the energy was high and boppin’ and fun. “Idn’t he somethin’?” Loretta asked the crowd. “I had them over for dinner, Jack and Meg, and I served them biscuits and gravy.” A ripple of laughter at this image of youth culture supping at the fount of country traditionalism. “I think I mighta poisoned ’em — naw, I’m only kiddin,'” Loretta added. “Miss Loretta, you sure are one of the most beautiful things to come out of the South,” Jack said heartily. The crowd yelled. “I’m lookin’ for a girlfriend, you know.” “Well, I’m lookin’ for a boyfriend,” Loretta replied gamely. After this banter they did one more duet, “Mississippi Woman, Louisiana Man,” and it was ragged but again full of gusto. Jack, in his tight red outfit resembling Jacko more than ever, then skipped off stage and Loretta finished her set.
When the White Stripes were done, after one encore (a three-way duet with Loretta that flopped — Meg had to be reminded to use her mic, and the three sang in unison, which wasn’t interesting), I emerged with the rest of the crowd into the cool spring night and went to a payphone to call a friend. The dial tone was in the same key as “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart.” It was probably the warmest memory of the night.
Check out other Glorious Noise articles about the White Stripes.