Live: The White Stripes Transcend at Madison Square Garden


I have a really vivid memory of sitting in my parents’ minivan in my parents’ driveway about six years ago, around the time White Blood Cells came out, paralyzed by indecision. The White Stripes were about to play Fletcher’s, a shitty little bar in Baltimore that always smelled like an ashtray, and I really wanted to go see them. But I had to get up around five the next morning to open the coffee shop where I was working that summer. I ended up skipping the show, and I’ve been regretting it every since. Up until last night, the closest I’d come to seeing the White Stripes live was when I was in their video and they were lip-syncing a few away from me. Every time they’ve toured since that Fletcher’s show, I’ve been living in the wrong city, or tickets have sold out just as I was hearing about the show; fate seemed to conspire to keep me from seeing this band, and I had to make do with rapturous secondhand reports. I haven’t been happy about it, but after last night, I’m glad I missed all those shows. Last night was the first time the band has ever played Madison Square Garden (Jack: “I don’t believe we’ve played this bar before”), and it’s a whole other thing to see this band explode into such a huge and historic venue, ignoring all received arena-rock logic and burning the place down all the same. The crowd last night was one of the weirdest and most heterogeneous I’d seen in a while: suburban Hot Topic kids, aging New York weirdos, studious-looking collegiate types, fratboys, yuppies, parents with kids, Nick Zinner. On the way out, I didn’t hear anyone grumbling. After last night, the White Stripes don’t look like indie-garage weirdos who somehow lucked their way into becoming something resembling rock stars. They look like they’ve always been rock stars; the rest of the world (or at least New York) has finally caught up.

The stage-set last night was probably the most stripped-down I’ve seen at an arena show. The stage was bathed in red light, and a light at the foot of the stage projected huge shadows of Jack and Meg across the back of the stage. During a couple of songs, a disco ball cast blood-red lights all over the arena. But that was it for special effects, which is just as well, since Jack White was basically a special effect unto himself. When the two of them walked onstage, he launched into an abrupt noise-roar that just as suddenly became the central riff to “Dead Leaves on a Dirty Ground.” He kept repeating that trick all night, turning sputtering screeches into melodies and back again. And he gets a whole lot of noises out of his guitars: moans, shudders, vrooms, cackles, tweets. He’s basically his own backing band, something that doesn’t fully come through on the band’s records, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him go. On “Icky Thump,” he played guitar and keyboard at the same time. On another song, I forget which one, he ran around the stage shaking a tambourine and singing into a handheld mic, violently throwing them both down when it was time for the guitars to kick in again. I like Meg’s drumming, but I got the feeling that Jack could’ve done her job just fine if someone had glued amplified bottlecaps to his boots. But even if Meg’s presence was mostly just reassuring, her one big solo moment was beautifully weird: when she stepped to center-stage to sing “In the Cold, Cold Night,” it was like we’d been launched into an alternate reality where Beat Happening was an arena band. That was part of the magic of last night’s show: this band might be truly adept at big-rock theatricality, but some of night’s best moments came when they abandoned arena-rock entirely. I’d been looking forward to seeing how the huge classic-rock melodies on Icky Thump would translate to such a big venue, and they sounded just great, but so did the stuff that shouldn’t have worked at all. The shrieking noise-solos of “Icky Thump” and the fey kiddie-folk of “We’re Gonna Be Friends” and the stripped-down bluegrass of “Little Ghost” were all just as convincing as the band’s most trad-rock bangers. And they weren’t afraid to fuck around with those bangers, either. They slowed “Fell in Love With a Girl” way down, basically using one of their best-known songs as an extended intro to “Ball and Biscuit.” But the show was also deeply satisfying in all the conventional ways. They played for almost two solid hours, touching on nearly all the songs I wanted to hear, and hitting all their big moments with absolute conviction. I might’ve had problems with this band in the past, but I seriously can’t do anything but gush about last night’s show. The band’s publicists jerked my comp tickets at the last moment, so I had to drop my own $60 on tickets (boo hoo, I know), and the show would’ve been worth twice that. If they’re playing anywhere near you, do yourself a favor.

Voice review: Nate Cavalieri on the White Stripes’ Icky Thump
Voice review: Keith Harris on the White Stripes Get Behind Me Satan
Voice review: Chuck Eddy on the White Stripes’ Elephant
Voice review: Hilary Chute on the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells

Last night’s openers, Grinderman and Porter Wagoner, combine to form a neat little roadmap of the White Stripes’ aesthetic: innocent aw-shucks nostalgia from Wagoner, squalls of raunched-up noise from Griderman. During Grinderman’s set, I kept thinking how weird it was to see Nick Cave and Porter Wagoner on the same stage, one immediately after the other. But that’s not quite right; Cave sang on a few of Johnny Cash’s American albums, and the last couple of Bad Seeds albums were middlebrow chamber-goth affairs, not all that far removed from Wagoner’s old-school Nashville country. But Grinderman is Cave’s attempt to recapture the Birthday Party’s sexed-out snarl, and it makes for a hell of a spectacle. I didn’t listen to the Grinderman album more than a couple of times; its way-out misanthropy didn’t quite connect with me. Onstage last night, though, they were monsters. The band, made up entirely of Bad Seeds vets, definitely has a distinctive look working for it: scuzzy glowering bearded guys in expensive-looking European suits. Warren Ellis, the scariest of the bunch, looks like he just climbed out of a swamp, and he didn’t even really play an instrument through most of the set. He played a couple of screaming, heaving guitar solos and sawed away at a violin on one song, but most of the time he just danced around shook maracas, occasionally using them to bash cymbals. The rhythm section would keep thick but simple one-chord thud-grooves going for a while while Cave yowled and grunted over the top. The songs are all tension, no release, and they just ooze. The most conventional Grinderman songs sound something like 60s garage-rock being fed through filters of molten hate. Cave fully inhabits his character, staring evilly at indeterminate points in the crowd and bashing out awful clangor on a keyboard or a guitar. When he first walked onstage, the girl in front of me started screaming like he was Omarion, which sort of makes sense. I also heard smatterings of boos in the crowd between songs, which also makes sense; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a huge crowd confronted with such a direct aural assault, and I’m sort of surprised how polite everyone was about it. Still, I loved it. Even in the cheap seats, it was searingly loud and intense, and Cave came dangerously close to stealing the show away from the headliners.

Wagoner was warm and appreciative, Cave’s opposite in pretty much every way. Before introducing Wagoner, Marty Stuart, playing bandleader for the night, played a charged-up but polished rockabilly/bluegrass hybrid, squeezing in some truly fast and fluid guitar-solos. I would’ve been happy to see more of Stuart, despite his frighteningly orange skin-tone. But it was a weird sort of thrill to see Wagoner, a real country legend, walk out onto the Madison Square Garden stage in his blue rhinestoned nudie suit and his bolo tie, happily greeting an audience of mostly indifferent spectators still working on finding their seats. Wagoner called the show “one of the tremendous thrills of my career,” and I’m not sure how that could possibly be true, but he certainly sounded genuine. Age has had its way with his craggy, tremulous voice, but that’s really only served to deepen the pathos he conveys so easily. He sang “Green Green Grass of Home” and “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” and a couple of other songs, and then he was gone. I wonder whether he watched the rest of the show, whether he liked it. I hope he did.

Voice review: Edd Hurt on Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster