Editor’s Note: So far, I’ve been pretty fortunate in the whole “musical anniversaries that prompt sobering reflections of one’s own mortality” department. Because I spent the majority of my youth blissfully unplugged from my own generational zeitgeist (read: listening to dad rock like a goddamned middle-aged man), I haven’t had much personal connection to the rapidly-aging Gen-X/millennial milestones of the last few years; last year, for example, I probably felt more nostalgia for the Beatles Anthology than for Weezer’s first album. But when I realized the White Stripes‘ Get Behind Me Satan turned 10 years old this June…well, that made me feel mad old. Looking back, the White Stripes were the first contemporary band that really spoke to me–the first band that felt like “mine,” not something borrowed or inherited from older/cooler kids less enamored with their parents’ Elton John records than I. These days, the Stripes don’t mean as much to me as they used to; that’s what happens when you get older, and the idea of having a band that’s “yours” gets a lot less important. But I still feel like I should pay tribute to one of my favorite albums by my one-time favorite band, in the form of this decade-old review I wrote of their October 1, 2005 performance at Detroit‘s Masonic Temple. Appropriately enough, it’s one of the more dated archival posts I’ve republished here; 21-year-old me took jabs at not only the usual target of Pitchfork, but also at CMJ and Franz Ferdinand, which is sort of like an article from 1995 sneering at Alternative Nation and Toad the Wet Sprocket. But hey, that’s part of what getting old is all about: realizing that the shit you used to think was important was both meaningless and more than a little embarrassing. Here’s to our inevitable demises! – Z.H.
For all the national attention given to the White Stripes as the current “Detroit band”–Jack‘s liner notes for the new Stooges reissues, the ubiquitous critical references to auto factories and smokestacks–it’s rarely acknowledged that, quite frankly, Jack and Meg don’t play hometown shows all that much. Since 2002, when the indie-breakthrough gravy train really kicked into high gear, the Stripes in Detroit have been a semi-annual prospect at best; with touring commitments in countries as far-flung as Great Britain and Brazil, it’s simply impossible for them to come home and play Michigan the way they used to. So it would be an understatement to say that there’s something special about the occasional White Stripes homecoming weekend–these shows are events, in a music industry where such excitement is in short supply. And no matter how you feel about the inexplicable ticket price-hike between the current tour and their last Detroit stop, in November of 2003 (I can assure you that I’m as bitchy as the rest of you), it cannot be denied that the White Stripes know how to deliver the goods.
Consider: dressed in matching feathered conquistador’s helmets, Jack and Meg stormed Saturday night’s red, black and white jungle-themed stage in a fury, launching into oldie-but-goodie “Let’s Shake Hands” to thunderous applause. Then they turned it up a notch. Jack, stalking the stage with his vintage Airline guitar like a confined animal, fired up song after song only to discard them abruptly, not playing riffs so much as hammering them out of peppermint-striped molten metal. After a brutal cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Party of Special Things to Do,” he tore briefly into the opening riff of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” then flung his guitar to the floor and left the stage, returning seconds later with what appeared to be a miniature replica of himself, complete with a wide-brimmed Zorro hat. “How you doing?” he shouted, his first words since the show had begun. The crowd roared their approval. “Me too,” he replied. The complete version of “Dead Leaves” that followed bristled with intensity. Doubters, take note: Jack and Meg White aren’t in Detroit to phone it in. In fact, these post-Get Behind Me Satan shows just might be their most violently transcendent yet.
That fact may come as a little unexpected. Satan, after all, is the Stripes’ least conventionally “rock” album since De Stijl, with far less reliance on the stop-start thrust of the duo’s guitar/drum interplay than many fans anticipated. But its wild sense of adventure fits seamlessly with the carnivalesque experience that is the White Stripes in concert. Part of the excitement is watching Jack dash from one mic to the other, from guitar to Fender Rhodes to grand piano to marimba, sometimes juggling two instruments at a time; even Meg, usually the eye of the hurricane, joins in the theatrics, stepping up to an impressive pair of candy-red tympani for the chantlike “Passive Manipulation.” Moments like these serve to remind us that the White Stripes are entertainers as much as they are musicians, an integral fact with which to understand their recent output. One could even argue that the quirks of Get Behind Me Satan, the odd little asides that made some perceive the record as eccentric or unlikable, are best contextualized within a live setting. Those cabaret affectations in “White Moon” throw you for a loop? Try this piano-pumping cover of “St. James Infirmary Blues” on for size. None too fond of the aforementioned “Passive Manipulation?” Well, in that case you might never become a convert, but that’s the nature of the White Stripes: love it or hate it, they’ll be moving on to the next attraction within minutes.
It is precisely that quality which makes them so invaluable, even undervalued, as performers. Nobody else on the planet is putting on a show like the White Stripes. The country blues of Robert Johnson‘s “Stones in My Passway” switches gears to Jack’s McCartney-esque pure pop ballad, “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart,” and nobody bats an eye. The pair think nothing of juxtaposing “We’re Going to Be Friends” with a version of “The Nurse” punctuated by blasts of noise that would make fellow metro-Detroiters Wolf Eyes proud. And through it all, the audience is never entirely sure whether it’s going to fall apart before their very eyes – let’s see Franz Ferdinand pull that off. Or not. Because unlike Franz, Interpol, or any other alternative heavyweights you might bother to name, the White Stripes are ours – not MTV’s, and certainly not CMJ’s or Pitchfork’s. It was evident in the reaction to Saturday night’s show closer “Boll Weevil,” a capacity crowd singing along rapturously to the words “he’s looking for a home” : they knew–and one hopes Jack and Meg know it, too–that their home is here, with us. It doesn’t matter if they come back to Detroit once a year or seven times, whether they charge fifteen dollars a ticket or fifty. For three nights, we had our hometown heroes back, and the reunion was sweet.
You can buy Get Behind Me Satan on Amazon, or listen to it here using Spotify (sorry, Jack, still not sold on TIDAL):