Story and Photos by Tony BonyataIt only took two postponed shows for those two enfant terribles of the rock world, The White Stripes, to finally arrive in Milwaukee to promote their latest platinum-selling album Elephant. (The first was due to a scheduling snafu and the second because singer / guitarist Jack White broke his finger in a recent automobile accident in his hometown of Detroit with former girlfriend Rene Zellweger). But with all of the spontaneous combustion that this cute minimalist duo managed to muster up, the wait was well worth it.
Playing to a sold-out crowd at the Eagles Ballroom last Monday, Jack and ex-wife / drummer Meg White strapped their audience in for a raucous rollercoaster ride of primal rock 'n' roll, metal-morphed blues and simplistic songs that showed just how truly sincere and, quite often, innocent these two young Detroiters really are.
"If it's really good, you're gonna need a bigger room. 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," Jack once sang about their music before The White Stripes' popularity exploded like an overstuffed birthday pinata. And now playing to a room of this caliber - compared to the tight, dank, little clubs they started out in - they knew exactly what they had to do, and that was to play just as they did when they started out; lean, mean, tight and tender, all within a set lasting little more than an hour-and-a-half.
Eschewing their more childlike red-and-white peppermint candy costumes in favor of a decidedly more black wardrobe, one might possibly expect a darker direction in their music as well. This was not the case, however, as the two dug deep into their impressive four album catalog, performing whimsical love songs ("I Want To Be The Boy To Warm your Mother's Heart"), scorching Delta blues-on-steroids ("Ball and Biscuit," "Little Bird" and a cover of bluesman Son House's "Death Letter," a song which Jack and Meg probably didn't even realize House first recorded in 1929 just 20 miles north in Grafton, Wisconsin) and modern-day garage rock classics ("Seven Nation Army" and "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground").
While the set weighed heavy on urgent blues and stripped-down kamikaze rock, the two also neatly unfolded their now staple, hand-embroidered cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" along with a more sinewy version of their own little country-fried ditty "Hotel Yorba," from their 2002 breakthrough album White Blood Cells.
Giving his self-appointed "sister" a little break from her primal pummeling on the skins, Meg coyly walked to the front of the stage to perform her showcase number from Elephant, "In The Cold, Cold Night." Certainly no Ethyl Merman, Meg, nonetheless, won the hearts of each and every audience member with her shy demeanor, honest child-like innocence and soft-spoken delivery (which actually sounded much stronger and confident here than on previous tours).
Although Jack's only been back on the road for a little over a month since his broken finger healed, there were absolutely no signs of affliction, pain or inability to perform. With blistering extended leads on "Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine" and "Let's Shake Hands," along with his feverous slide work over Meg's devil's backbone beat on "Death Letter" and even some impressive keyboard swapping during a couple of numbers, his playing only seemed to have improved from his ten-week healing hiatus. Maybe not by the leaps and bounds blues legend Robert Johnson was said to have improved after a certain 'deal gone down,' but surely there must've been some type of crossroads chicanery for this miraculous recovery and jaw-dropping display of raw talent.
As everything continues to grow around this band (press, fanbase, record sales), the one thing that remains the same is that Jack and Meg White are still just two people immensely connected with their music, their audience and, most importantly, each other. And it shows.
Setlist for The White Stripes' 11/10/03 Milwaukee show1) Black Math
2) Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
3) I Think I Smell A Rat / Take A Whiff
4) Jolene (Dolly Parton cover)
5) Hotel Yorba
6) Let's Shake Hands
7) Cannon / John the Revelator
8) I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman
9) Why Can't You Be Nicer To Me
10) In The Cold, Cold Night
11) I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart
12) Death Letter
13) Little Bird
13) I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself
14) Wasting My Time
15) Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine
16) The Big Three Killed My Baby
17) Hardest Button To Button
18) Ball and Biscuit
19) Outlaw Blues (Bob Dylan cover)
Encore21) Seven Nation Army
22) Boll Weevil (traditional folk cover)
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