White Stripes + Public Hunger = Not a Good Show

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.

26 thoughts on “White Stripes + Public Hunger = Not a Good Show”

  1. I, too, walked away kinda disappointed with this show. Hammerstein Ballroom is way too big, not for the Stripes, but for anybody. The floor is ridiculously large, and the balconies are too far away. I think there may be nothing good in the house. If you are lucky enough to be in front row you could easily have 3000 people pressing you from behind. Plus, with that many people, a breakout album, and a club right by Penn Station, the crowd is bound to be more mixed and less “into it” than at, say, the Bowery Ballroom.

    Musically, the Stripe’s show was more disjointed than any others I’ve seen (both large and small venues, but mostly small). There were more dead spots beween songs, and there was no flow until the end of the show, when they finally strung a couple of rocking tunes together. At at least one point, they actually turned the lights off for a moment while Jack grabbed another guitar. He never cared if someone saw him changing guitars before.

    Another grinding halt came when Meg got out from behind her drumkit to sing Cold Cold Night. Why? To show of how cute she is? I really like the song, but she can’t sing, at least not that song and not live. Plus, she needs to learn to use the microphone better. Rated X was always a treat when she performed it, this was painful.

    He seemed to be rushing through songs and he “jammed out” on the floor only rarely. He almost didn’t seem to be into it. The one exception was Hardest Button to Button, which was excellent and he screamed a lot of the lyrics towards the end. Screwdriver was also pretty good, I think he really likes that song.

    The set from last month at the Brixton Academy is much better (you can still listen to it on BBC radio streamed), so I don’t think this was a sign of them falling off, it was just an off night in an off place. Can’t wait for Summer Stage!

  2. Kristy…, I happen to know that you can’t be any taller than 5’4″ so that show must’ve been a real drag. If all you can do is listen, why not stay home and download live bootlegs… yuk yuk.

  3. The geetar may have been slightly distorted, but that was partly because it was really LOUD at the Hammerstein that night. That is something hard to replicate for a lot of us New Yorkers in our shoebox apartments with downstairs assh*le neighbors with broomsticks bangin’ all the time. I’m tired of always blowing up my headphones or yelling at the floor, so it was worth going just for that.

  4. I’m kinda surprised you could figure out what I meant by that. Thought I had disguised it pretty well.

  5. Yeah, I know what you’re talking about, Amighty. I’m tired of being afraid to play music after 10 at night because of my downstairs, quiet-as-a-churchmouse, neighbor. You wouldn’t believe the wimpy little songs I write on guitar now, too, because I’m afraid to “rock out” (unless I’m drunk, but even then, the neighbor-fear thing is iron-clad in NYC).

    To see the Stripes, I was standing on the steps in the lobby, way far back, so that might have affected my impression of the sound. (“Might have??” scream the audiophiles.) But even to check out if there was a better spot to hear from was impossible (well, you were there). There were quite a few assh*les in the crowd and one woman was freaking out because everyone around her had laughed when she felt faint and had to leave the front.. She was only about 5.’ I think short people should be given special access to the front and taller people should be blocked, like trucks not being able to go under bridges with a certain clearance.

  6. I was up in the mezzanine. The seating up there is a mixed blessing – it is wierd to be watch a rock show from a chair… but the chairs are comfy, especially when you’re so far away from the action. PLus the beer lines are much shorter.

    I had a similar experience with the Strokes there on Halloween. They came off so poorly. There was no audience interaction at all, 90% of the people couldn’t see what was going on, and the sound was so distorted that all the songs sounded even more similar then they already do. But later, when I saw the White Stripes and Strokes later at Radio City they both rocked – the Strokes were arguably better!

    My asshOle neighbors banged at 10pm on New Year’s Eve! I couldn’t believe it. They complain if I play Steely Dan, so screw ’em! I play NWA now when I’ve had enough. Keep rockin’ and check out some great headphones from Grado Labs in Brooklyn.

  7. shit, now i’m kinda scared for the warfield shows in sf…crappy sound and a huge, cavernous theater with three tiers. i think they should stick to small clubs, but what with the fan base growing and growing, i don;t know what they could realisticly do.

    what’s most disconcerting to me, kristy, is your report that jack didn’t seem to be engaged with the material. yikes.

  8. Well you’re in your little room

    And you’re working on something good,

    But if it’s really good

    You’re gonna need a bigger room.

  9. anyone watch conan o’brian last night? i thought seven nation army came across really well, except for the solo, which sounded really sour.

  10. FWIW, the Masonic Temple in Detroit is like 4000 people big, three tiered, with a big main floor and the sound was, i think, pretty great (sat in left balcony).

  11. I keep forgetting to watch Conan. Did anyone see them last night?

    Sarah, I’m inclined to agree with Amighty’s comment that it was probably just an off night. They didn’t seem terminally jaded, just a bit unenthusiastic. Let us know how they do in SF.

    Jake, where are those lyrics from? They sound Silver Jew-ish.

  12. The White Stripes’ “Little Room” off White Blood Cells. The rest of the lyrics:

    And when you’re in the bigger room,

    You might not know what to do.

    You might have to think of

    How you got started

    Sitting in your little room.

  13. It’s been a roller coaster week for the White Stripes, from my perspective. Right after the Hammerstein show, and after the first nite on Conan, the whole gig didn’t seem quite the same as before. I was worried Jack and Meg had started to buy into cheap superficial showmanship, leaving behind much of their raw core. (What is with that bouncer dude anyway, and why won’t he let Conan shake hands with Meg? Who cares? Let’s focus on the music, people, remember? The simplicity?) While it is true that the Hammerstein sucks acoustically, Jack just didn’t seem to put consistent energy into the whole affair. Then, with their second nite on Conan, there appeared to be another shift, this time in the right direction. With a powerful rendition of Jolene, sans superfluousness, they pulled me back in. Which led right into today, holy f*cking sh*t, watching them rehearse Hardest Button to Button for tonite’s show, live in the NBC studio, Jack’s guitar almost exploded in front of me. His passion for the music, and how it manifested, left me reeling. Long live the Stripes!

  14. I hear ya Yobro, that rehearsal rocked! Plus they were great on the show last night as well. I feel like playing before a small appreciative crowd may have re-energized them after all these big venues and all the hype.

  15. A week later, but…

    Kristy, your review is soo excellent. It is EXACTLY what happened there last week. Meg’s singing was awful, her drumming was worse, Jack was cool, but together they didn’t get any momentum going at all. Your noted highlights were the ones.

    Anyway, Jolene on Conan was fantastic, as was the Button number. What are odds on Friday night’s song pic?

  16. Greetings from the UK!

    I would just like to say that I was among the thousands of Stripes acolytes at their recent show at the Carling Apollo in Manchester, UK.

    Having seen them about 18 months before at a much smaller venue and also having been a fan for ages, I would like to concur with many of the points made in Kristy’s review.

    I was distinctly underwhelmed by aspects of the show but greatly enjoyed parts of it.

    The crowd was full of idiots and tall ones at that! However, I too am only 5ft 4 and couldn’t see anything for much of the show – not the Stripes’ fault of course (but they are both quite wee) but it’s damned annoying when your view of the stage is obscured by a 7ft tall pillock.

  17. hey all, just wanted to report that the sf shows were interesting: the monday night show i was right up front, a few people back from jack, and while i had a great time and they sounded good, i wasn;t blown away like i have been before. then came tuesday.

    i was seated in one of the last rows in a huge, three -tiered theater, and my god they blew the roof off. the show was incredible. the crowd was on its feet, going off. death letter was absolutely phenomenal, jack was on fire all night and there was that palpable sexual tension between he and meg that adds to an already compelling performance. it all was beautiful to watch.

    all in all, i have to say, i am a believer. the white stripes (on a good night) are the best live band, the most satisfying, that i have ever seen.

  18. Thanks for the report, Sarah. I’m glad the Stripes got it together and blew the roof off the joint the 2nd night. I agree the sexual tension between Jack and Meg is one of their strongest assets. At the New York show, I got such a sexual vibe off them that I found it hard to believe they aren’t a couple anymore. When I said so to someone next to me, he said: “They’re brother and sister. The thing about them being married is just an Internet rumor.” This guy was wearing a C&W shirt and bolo tie. Part of their new demographic? Anyway, blind as a bat!

  19. I thought the performances of the white srtipes were great! All you haters need to stop putting them down they are the best live band in the world and the best thing that has happen to music since they fist came out. And the white stripes rock!!!

  20. I don’t care what other people say I’m gonna love them anyway. They rock! And you know it. oh and Jake if someone didn’t know the song they never heard the c.d. b/t/w.

  21. yeah i never saw the show, the last comment was posted in July it is now Februrary I’m really bored.

    If anybody ever reads this my theory is Jack and Meg are making another album The second song they performed at the grammies was one of the tracks and that’s why they haven’t performed since the tour in Europe. Also i just got the latest addition of Blender and they did a huge article about the incidenct from Dec 13 about Jack and The front man from the von bondies. Jack could be put away for a year and i’m really pissed right now. Ok l8er

  22. The second song they played in the medley at the award show was “Death Letter” from their second record “De Stijl”. They are however supposed to put out a new album at the end of this year.

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