ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—The line to enter The White Stripes show follows a city block on the far bank of the Neva river. Stretching as far as I can see are the city’s distinctive three- and four-story layer cake buildings dating from a royal century. This is not your typical queue for a concert. The venue itself is the Czar’s former horse stables, entered through an elegant yellow arch frosted by white cornice-work.
I feel like I should be wearing a cravat.
Instead, I’m in jeans and a wool hat, smoking a cigarette and sizing up my companions, two dozen participants from the Summer Literary Seminars, for which I am print designer and a former student. A pair behind me—she a graduate of the New School MFA program and he a current student there; both are gallery workers in Manhattan—compare notes about living in that city.
“Nobody’s from New York,” she says. “It’s hard to make friends.”
That’s not the case here at SLS, where Russian cell phones have been purchased, bottles of Vodka are passed, and the collective hilarity of navigating 21st-century Russia creates a boozy, beleaguered bonhomie.
As for the rest of the concert crowd, I expect to see the motley leftovers of ’80s hair metal fashion, but the country is shedding its style milk-teeth and a flash New Russia is in evidence.
A woman picks a careful path along the sidewalk, balancing in 10-inch heels, legs swaddled in black-and-white striped terry cloth. She wears a miniskirt the size of an eye patch and her hair is dyed, well, silver. Her boyfriend looks like a buff Beck, with better feathered hair and a man purse.
Meanwhile, bobbing in the cool waters of the Neva is a three-masted sailing ship, decommissioned from the Navy in some distant past when Chechnya didn’t mean exploding subway stations in Moscow and downed planes in Russian airspace. Army men are posted all around the venue, fingers on triggers.
I spy a foursome of VIPs dressed in what I understand is Jack White’s signature—a black suit jacket, red tie, fancy hats. Even if the band prides itself on being a twosome, I’m hoping these dudes make it onstage. There’s something distressing about live rock ‘n’ roll assembled by only two people.
In fact, I’m no big fan of the White Stripes. Few of their songs convince me there’s more than facility with a guitar knocking around behind the facade. And there’s too much effort to maintain the image, the story, the “ideas.” Hearing Jack White give somber elaboration for the band’s color scheme, as Fresh Air host Terry Gross giggled, was not a proud moment in rock.
But the chance to see them live, in Russia, undermines all such logic. Perhaps they’ll kick my ass?
Passing through the gilded arch, I join a hundred others standing in the sun-drenched courtyard, drinking beer and murmuring happily as if everyone’s just eaten a full meal.
Inside, the space is a large room, twice as long as it is wide. Staff pulls back a curtain at the rear, revealing another three acres of floor space. Two great windows have been thrown open and “white night,” a seasonal perk for living so close to the Arctic circle, floods the room.
The crowd’s getting antsy and the DJ’s eating it up, playing everyone like an author who leaves an entire page blank for effect. Between songs, he’s pausing for 10, 15, 20 seconds, letting the silence fill with cheering and chanting.
Then they come on, blasting immediately into “Black Math,” a pounding, driving song from Elephant with relentless 4/4 drum work that seems to argue against Sasha Frere Jones’s blistering call to have Meg White dismissed from the band. She’s pounding with authority, and I can’t imagine a more perfect syncopation.
With feedback still buzzing and hand poised to begin the next song, Jack White addresses the crowd in English: “Hello, we’re the White Stripes, from Detroit.”
The show cost $20, more than a day’s wages for the vast majority of Russians, and of the 2,000 paying customers, it appears that as many as a quarter are English-speaking expatriates. I begrudge him his failure to say hello in Russian.
The third song is “In the Cold Cold Night,” and as the crowd sings along, I realize that the three-quarters Russian contingent nonetheless speaks enough English to follow with apparent feeling. “Hotel Yorba” comes out as the fifth selection and the crowd begins to pogo. Jack breaks out the mandolin, but the move is eclipsed by an acoustic guitar played for the following track, a devastating chunk-a-thon that redefined for me the cacophony a hollow body can create.
Jack’s hat comes off, and Meg’s drumming begins to unravel. It may be jet lag, but she’s missing cues, changes speeds—and all this in service of a stunningly simple beat.
Xylophones emerge for “The Nurse,” a quiet track without guitars from the new album, and poor maligned Meg’s deterioration continues. But after “Just Another Asshole,” there’s another address from Jack: “My sister’s very sick today,” he says, “but we didn’t want to cancel the show.”
With that, they leave the stage. The crowd explodes, chanting “White” (pause) “Stripes”—over and over.
The first encore is ” Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” a solid sing-along that, as the chorus inflates with the power of a 2,000-person choir , the White Stripes suddenly feels like a band of consequence.
Then there’s “Seven Nation Army,” to my knowledge the band’s flagship property, and Jack White goes totally nuts, writhing across the stage, stressing the chords with an awesome urgency. Even better is the next song, “Ball and Biscuit,” the strongest effort from the entire show, and evidence that two white kids from Detroit can blur genre boundaries—in this case bicep-curling guitar rock with black man’s blues—and not crawl back home from the scene of the crime, intestines dragging and fingers bleeding.
Arm in arm, the Whites take a bow, leaving the guitar fuzzing as house lights come on and booming from the speakers is “Torn and Frayed,” a track from an earlier effort from a different band intending not to get fucked by blurring genres, but one that probably has more of a legacy than is probable for this vigorous, silly duo.
The walk back to the city center across the Neva requires crossing a series of dare-devil crosswalks. One woman—not, I realize later, part of our group—dashes across an intersection and is nearly flattened by one of those warship BMWs the size of a dinosaur.
I think it’s because of rock ‘n’ roll: She gives him the bird, tosses her hair, and sprints off.
The driver keeps pace as she flees, and when the window rolls down, I hold my breath, expecting a sleek pistol to shoot my metaphor in the breast. But she squares her jaw and blows the car an enormous air kiss. Even if kleptocracy is strangling Russia—and concert organizers can bring American bands to the country’s cultural capitol and charge $20—here is one moment when the kids, not the crooks, are winning.