Four years ago The White Stripes enjoyed the unique distinction, for a new rock’n’roll band, of being discussed by John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today programme.
They were the subject of a bidding war between cash-happy record labels and caused much comment over the precise nature of Jack and Meg White’s relationship.
On stage, Meg bashed the drums on her own raised podium while Jack whacked his axe from atop his. The duo, their instruments and set were always dressed in black, red and white. Their strikingly visual singularity would help mark out the Whites amongst a wave of guitar bands, as would the noise just two people could make without even a bass guitar. Audiences, from Elvis Presley fans on, swooned. Here was a genuine rock’n’roll band with tunes, style, panache. The White Stripes were in business.
Fast forward to 2005 and, with an expanded sound evidenced on the recent Get Behind Me Satan album, The White Stripes have found space on stage for a treasure trove of instruments, but they’ve never lost sight of what made them unique. A considerably expanded drumkit awaits Meg, but four guitars (one acoustic, one dobro-style), a grand piano, two keyboards, a marimba and mics conveniently scattered around the red-floored stage space await Jack. No longer does the boy restrict himself.
Always impressive live, the Whites have also upped the theatrical ante. Even before the duo enter, their stage crew, dressed in black trilbies and immaculate suits, cart on the still colour-coded instruments and what look like fake white Christmas trees. At the back of the stage is draped a canvas centred with a big apple, a centrepiece of a typically impressive lights show from the always reliable Apollo.
The Whites arrive and Jack looks deathly pale. Perhaps sunlight damages him, vampire style. Perhaps he likes make-up. It matters not, for in steel-trimmed black trousers, a red t-shirt and a dramatic, flapping black coat, topped by a black Zorro-style hat this scarecrow-like figure is immensely watchable – a showman at work.
They crash through a rousing intro before the infectious riff of Blue Orchid gets the pit bouncing. Jack is all over the stage, shrieking falsetto into whichever microphone he finds closest as the relentless pace pounds on.
Meg, contrastingly, is bolt upright at her drums, bashing them like a sullen child whose beat never wavers. In the Blue Orchid video she hits plates with a hammer – and it’s easy to imagine her drumming with whatever comes to hand. “Miss Penny Farthing on the drums,” announces Jack, somewhat bewilderingly.
With five albums to their name the Whites have extended their sets these days. Material from Satan, including new single The Denial Twist, nestles alongside the older hits, and it’s these not-forgotten moments that get the audience going. The short and sweet Hotel Yorba is greeted with enthusiasm, and the audience even sing the chorus of Dusty Springfield‘s melodic I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself. Fell In Love With A Girl is offered at a slower pace than its recorded version but goes down well, while 7 Nation Army B-side Black Jack Davey proves to be a mixed-tempo, mid-set highlight.
Jack channels as much energy into My Doorbell as he scoots across to his piano and keyboard set-up, and never quite sits down. Meg gets her first of two turns on vocals with the deadpan Screwdriver, returning to vocal duties later with In The Cold, Cold Night and Passive Manipulation. There’s even space for her to play bongos to Jack’s acoustic later in the set. The suggestion seems to be that this is a band, not simply Jack with a drummer.
The encore plays something like an Act II, lasting for more than half an hour. It features the rather odd The Nurse, with Jack taking to the marimba for the first and only time in between bursts of sequenced guitar, and climaxes, inevitably, with the anthemic 7 Nation Army and Boll Weevil. Well before this and the duo’s courteous bows and thanks, much of the balcony is already standing, taking in the spectacle of two musicians entertaining from the top of their craft and showing every sign of being around for the long haul.