When I saw the article last Wednesday, May 16, I thought it was a misprint: The White Stripes announced through their Web site that they would be playing a show that coming Friday, May 18, at the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville. Tickets would go on sale the day before through the Web site, on a first-come, first-served basis.
Yes, the Bonnaroo co-headlining White Stripes were playing a show in a venue that TV on the Radio sold out a month before. Their new album, Icky Thump, comes out in June, and they have a huge North American tour scheduled for it. Jack lives in Nashville, but the news that he and Meg were kicking off the summer tour with a shotgun show in his backyard for whoever was lucky enough to attend produced almost too much excitement for me to bear.
Have to confess: I didn’t write an article about the show for this Web site because I didn’t want anyone who hadn’t found out on their own to find out and maybe beat me to a ticket. I kept the news locked up inside and minded my business, almost like I had access to secret security codes. If I didn’t get a ticket to this monumental show, it wasn’t going to be because I’d spilled the beans that broke the levy. I sought the advice of friends who often buy tickets online and, as patiently as possible, waited until noon Thursday.
Some initial Internet trouble greeted my early lunch break, but by 10 past noon I had the receipt in my e-mail box guaranteeing me a ticket to what was later termed “The Inaugural Concert of Icky Thump.” The Raconteurs are good, but this was the White Stripes, the band that all the fuss was about, the last of the garage-revivalists and the only one that mattered in the first place, playing a club small enough to recognize just how imposing Jack White is in person, not to mention hopefully have my face ripped off by a blistering solo.
A three-piece, surf-garage-rock power trio opened the show to a polite response. Dan Sartain was the leader’s name, and they were OK. A good band to set the stage, anyway, keeping the songs short and sweet and the amps nice and loud. By the half-hour mark, though, it was time for the rockers to thank the crowd and head for the hills: No one cares about the opener when the headliner hasn’t been around in two years.
The roadies wore black gangster suits with red feathers in their hats. The atmosphere seemed to be a living, breathing, pulsating, tangible thing. Everyone in attendance was so excited to simply be in attendance that the Whites probably wouldn’t have had to do much to get and keep us on their side. They nevertheless went ahead and blew us away, just because they could.
The secret to the White Stripes' success is the almost symbiotic relationship Jack and Meg share. “This is my big sister, Meg White,” Jack said at one point. That has a nicer ring to it than “ex-wife,” but being near enough to watch their onstage interaction you realize they share a closeness that can’t be quantified. She taps her sticks and cocks her head, he steps up to the drum-side microphone and screams in her face, and you understand that they are two halves of the same being, at least while onstage and in front of a crowd.
Jack cut his hair for the occasion, back inhabiting the persona that made him famous, complete with the black T-shirt, red pants and messy black hair in his face. As part of a two-person group, one of whom is a drummer, it’s kind of on Jack to carry the show each night. Meg’s great at what she does, but she’s a small woman sitting behind a drum kit; not much chance for audience connection there. Jack was ready, though, running and jumping all over the stage, thrashing about, screaming his head off and ripping his guitar to pieces. He’s back in full freak-out mode, and really, it was time.
The two of them played a lot of songs off the new album, and, judging by those new songs, it seems like Nashville is starting to rub off on Jack. Furthering the Nashville connection, he played songs by Hank Williams, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. At one point he asked, “How’s my new hometown doing?” Detroit no doubt will never forgive him, but he couldn’t seem happier to be where he is doing what does.
It wasn’t only country and new songs, though. “Hotel Yorba” elicited an explosive reaction from the crowd. The second song, “Black Math,” (Williams’ “Tennessee Border” started the show) kicked the show into another gear, both in the crowd and onstage. “Ball and a Biscuit” allowed Jack to really explore the stage and his guitar, leaving everyone somewhat awed at what one man can do in the stripped-down setting if he really goes for it. When that bit of marathon soling wrapped up, he calmed things with “We’re Going to Be Friends” and the crowd sang along. To close the show, they brought the house down one last time with “Seven Nation Army.”
After his time doing the big-rock thing with the Raconteurs (who were in attendance), Jack White is back to fucking shit up with his old running buddy Meg. A thumping bass drum, splashy cymbals, loud, raw guitars and both performers in the service of the show added up to a huge night at the Cannery Ballroom. The show may have been historic in context (they sold $5 limited edition T-shirts commemorating the event), but it was entertaining as hell in person.
“Thank you all for coming out on such short notice,” Jack said in the middle of the show. When they came out for the encore, he brought along a Polaroid camera, took a picture of the scene and whipped the still-drying photograph into the crowd. Meg giggled constantly, doubling over more than once. They were both positively joyful, and that upbeat vibe carried over to the audience.
It was the happiest post-show crowd exodus I’ve ever seen, possibly because none of us could believe how lucky we were to have been a part of the show we just witnessed. There is officially a buzz once again surrounding the White Stripes.
Welcome back, Jack and Meg. We never knew how much we missed you.