The block-long line that stretched outside downtown Detroit’s Masonic Temple Theatre Saturday evening hummed with the anticipation of Jack White’s homecoming. A cross-section of the fans who’d contributed to the Stripes’ success at home and abroad was there to welcome them: MTV viewers and Clear Channel listeners of all ages who caught on with “Seven Nation Army”; chaperoned 14-year-old girls who helped their latest album, Get Behind Me Satan, debut at No. 4 on the Billboard charts; Detroit music fans and indie kids who helped start a candy-colored phenomenon half a decade ago.
You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Room
Some of us remember a time when nobody knew who The White Stripes were. This was before hipsters, this was before good music had become a trend, irrevocably associated with white belts and bad haircuts. But that was bullshit, of course; really good music doesn’t stay under the radar for long, and all it took to get in on the secret was $14 and a pair of open ears. White Blood Cells is such a brilliant album that we should’ve known we couldn’t keep it to ourselves. But most us weren’t old enough to remember when David Geffen bought grunge, and Modest Mouse wouldn’t lend their music to a minivan commercial for a few years.
Everyone files into the imposing, labyrinthine hall. Fans drift in to the sound of pop up-and-comer Brendan Benson. Sure, he’s another Detroiter, but Benson’s performance is a clean and tight; his set of easy-to-like songs goes by quickly. Two trim-suited stagehands, faces hidden under black fedoras, strike the set, and the Stripes’ tableau begins to take shape. Dichromatic silhouettes of palm fronds cover cloth-draped columns; a backdrop depicts the band’s latest symbol, a white apple, rising over a body of water. Red-and-white timpani, organ and marimba appear; Jack’s three guitars lean up against the three red-and-white cabinets the way miniatures might sit in a room of a dollhouse. White-painted palms, the kind you’d place in a corner of your living room, flank the stage.
Everybody’s Reaction Is Changing You
So when Elephant – an album we had salivated at the thought of, an album that had the dual misfortune of being White’s first misstep and spawning “Seven Nation Army,” the band’s first mainstream single – hit stores, we tried to be happy. We were glad, we told ourselves, that people had finally caught on to this awesome band, that they were getting credit for giving us three fantastic albums. But it sounded like something was missing: The blues infusion that had fueled White’s songwriting identity so well seemed to outgrow its inspirational role to become shtick, to substitute for the kind of innovation that marked White Blood Cells and De Stijl. And then I noticed that none of my friends really listened to their White Stripes records any more, and the next thing we knew, Jack was getting into car accidents with Bridget fucking Jones. Fans can be fickle, demanding and judgmental – but I think a lot of young music aficionados felt as though the band’s albums were being made for someone else.
All the lights drop. We’re prepped for the performance with a few seconds of dark – and then, wearing what looks like full Knights of Columbus regalia, Jack emerges. Meg follows; she’s got on the same Captain Hook-style hat but wears her usual hot-girl leather pants and tight t-shirt. Jack slings the Airliner over his shoulder. Meg takes her place at her set, sticks ready. Their eyes lock.
The Nurse Should Not Be the One Who Puts Salt in Your Wounds
A lot of us didn’t dare hope that Get Behind Me Satan would be the step forward that it is. I know for a fact that most of us didn’t warm up to it right away, and not just because it doesn’t sound like one of those kick-you-in-the-face-great albums on the first few listens. The quality of its guitar-heavy tracks was reassuring. The cool, marimba-based “The Nurse” reaffirmed White’s songwriting skills and brought his own ideas back into sharp focus – at the same time, the quiet artistry of this one track raised more real questions than all of Elephant did. But Jack White’s best music has always been quid pro quo – you get out of it what you put into it.
Same Boy You’ve Always Known
As if to reach out to his hometown audience, which welcomes the band onstage with a roar that momentarily blocks out their music, White launches into the simple, dirty “Let’s Shake Hands,” a single originally released in his Detroit days. He courts Meg, singing into the mic by her set; the next moment, he’s playing to the girls jumping up and down by the stage. “Let’s Shake Hands” becomes Get Behind Me Satan’s opener, “Blue Orchid,” which slides into the anthemic riff of the haunting “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” Meg smacks the skins with her usual joyful toughness while the intensity with which Jack plays knocks off his admiral’s headgear. His costume spoiled, he takes a lap around the back of the stage and removes the coat of his uniform, whips it offstage and out of sight and charges up the center of the stage with the defiance and determination of a bullfighter.
The first of two renditions of Elephant’s coolly sexual “Ball and Biscuit” comes next; White alternates between seductive appeal and his distinctive strangled, mangled whine. He brings down a near-10-minute solo, thumping low on the E string and then flaring up again with unpredictable shrieks on the high strings. In 15 minutes of playing, White has shown that he doesn’t plan on moving away from guitar – or the shards of asphalt in his sound that mark him as Detroit born and bred – anytime soon, despite the marimba waiting behind him onstage.
After banging out “St. James Infirmary Blues” on piano and singing with all the earthy elegance of a ’30s cabaret singer, White thrashed through the rough beats of “Little Bird,” returned to the organ bench still wearing his guitar and played both parts to “I Want to Be the Boy.” One true highlight of the performance was “Jolene,” originally a Dolly Parton tune; White channelled the speaker’s pain through his guitar while singing the line “Please don’t take him just because you can,” almost inaudibly. Meg went to the front of the stage to sing “Cold Cold Night”; later, she sang “Passive Manipulation,” which briefly segued into “The Rat” before closing the half with “The Hardest Button to Button.”
A tense, disjunct “Instinct Blues” opens the impossibly long encore, but the performance has yet to come to its true climax: White belts out the “Citizen Kane”-inspired “The Union Forever,” adding a verse in a voice immediate as bleeding as he thrashes about with his hair in his face.
Finally, White takes up mallets and begins the exotic, floating marimba intro to “The Nurse.” Meg makes loud splashes on her cymbals for the hits while Jack stomps a strategically placed pedal that releases feedback from his electric guitar. After “We’re Going to Be Friends,” “Red Rain,” “Forever for Her Is over for Me” and a version of “Hotel Yorba” that has fans on the main floor dancing and clapping, White asks us to sing along with a line in “Boll Weevil” – “He’s lookin’ for a home.” White has made it clear that he knows just where – and who – his home is.