As the notion of concert performance retreats ever further into the pre-programmed bowels of a computer, the great live album is virtually a thing of the past.
Thank heavens, then, for Under Great White Northern Lights, The White Stripes' record of their 2007 Canadian Tour, whose greatness is attributable to how much it goes against the common practice of concert performance.
It comes as a CD/DVD package, the 16-track CD accompanied by Emmett Malloy's documentary of the tour, which saw Jack and Meg traversing the country, playing shows in every province from Ontario to Nunavut, Newfoundland to Yukon. At one point in the film, Jack White explains how their success is due in part to their deliberately making things more difficult for themselves as their career has progressed: things like still using the same guitars, with their tendency to lose tuning; placing the organ a bit further away so he has to struggle to reach it; and not having replacement plectrums in easy reach.
The amazing thing is that this simple strategy works like a charm, bringing a sense of uncertainty and spontaneity to their shows that illuminates old material. Then again, the duo have always squeezed maximum impact from minimal resources, Meg rarely straying from the simplest, most starkly dynamic of pulses while Jack wrings an extraordinary range of riffs and tortured squeals from his red fibreglass Airline guitar on songs such as "Let's Shake Hands", "Black Math" and "Icky Thump". When he takes an instrumental break, it's not so much a solo as a strangulated howl of protest, the six-string equivalent of the falsetto squawk with which he delivers "Blue Orchid" and "Let's Shake Hands". Even when switching to electric mandolin for "Little Ghost", there's an air of hysteria about the performance. By contrast, the addition of a local Nova Scotian piper to the folksy mandolin of "Prickly Thorn. But Sweetly Worn" beds the song more deeply in those roots, besting the studio version on Icky Thump.
The accompanying film is full of magical scenes, not least because of the awe-inspiring backdrops. There's a sweet segment of the couple chatting with, and playing for, Inuit elders up in Iqualit, and feasting on raw caribou meat; proud sporting of tartan kilts in Nova Scotia; and a charming sequence editing together the impromptu daytime gigs which they put on at each location – a flour mill in London, Ontario, a bowling alley in Saskatoon, a school bus in Winnipeg, etc. The overall effect is a strong affirmation of the principles of directness and immediacy which have served The White Stripes so well.
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