The White Stripes, Alexandra Palace, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

He's wearing blood-red leather boots, obscenely tight black leggings with silver buckles up the seams which might have been raided from a Prince-influenced fashion line for normal-sized people (as if Jack has spent the last two years not just wondering "How can we move on from Elephant?" but also "How can I outdo the half-red, half-black trousers I wore on that tour?"). Next, a black frock coat, a black, pointed under-chin goatee beneath his pallid face and, jammed down over his black hair, a black Homburg hat.

Tonight, with perfect timing for the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, Jack White - or, I should say, Thee Quid (as he has, for reasons known only to himself, renamed himself for the duration of this UK tour, referring to his "big sister" Meg as "Miss Penny Farthing") - has pitched up in London as a Jacobean villain, a visual companion to that silent movie here-comes-the-baddie motif in his own "Seven Nation Army". Looking like this, he ought to be a shoo-in for the lead role in next year's film adaptation of V For Vendetta, Alan Moore's Guy Fawkes-inspired graphic novel (especially given the favourable reviews for White's acting debut in Cold Mountain a few years ago).

This, however, is the biggest concession to visual fanciness The White Stripes have made. No plasma screens, no laser lights, no confetti cannons. The stage is decorated only by a backdrop with a Garden Of Eden apple at its centre, and a few pots of ferns stage left and right, their leaves painted white (no greenery may invade The White Stripes' strict red, white and black colour code).

Five albums down the line, Jack and Meg White are as uncompromising as ever with their self-imposed straitjacket. It's been said before - often by me - but Jack's aesthetic tunnel-vision is actually productive. In the real world, his hatred of all things modern and obsession with authentic vintage paraphernalia might be considered a borderline symptom of Asperger's Syndrome.

But certain moderate forms of mental illness are arguably conducive to being a pop star. If he wasn't Jack White Of The White Stripes, it's perfectly plausible that this man would be arrested for wandering the Detroit streets, shouting at the windows of internet cafes, punching people with mobile phones, and setting fire to iPods. In the context of The White Stripes, it works perfectly, focuses his intentions, drives him on.

The Stripes' current album, Get Behind Me Satan, may be a musical departure for them, with keyboards and xylophones prominent on songs such as "My Doorbell" and "The Denial Twist", and tonight old songs such as "The Big Three Killed My Baby" are rendered in piano form - but it isn't quite time to be shouting "Judas!" just yet.

For one thing, pianos have been occasional features of their songs, as far back as "Apple Blossom" on De Stijl. For another, Jack and Meg are still resolutely refusing even to countenance the very notion of bringing another band member into the mix. If the two of them can't manage it themselves, the idea is invalid.

This is why, during "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground", Jack sits down at the ivories for the (suddenly highly literal) lines "If you can hear a piano fall/ You can hear me coming down the hall", but he does so with a guitar around his neck, ready to leap back up for the main riff.

Even more remarkably, during "The Nurse", he plays a xylophone (red and white, naturally) and a guitar at the same time. He's almost a one man band straight out of a circus parade (indeed, there's something ringmaster-ish about the way he shouts "'Ello 'ello 'ello!" in Dick van Dyke mockney, and whips us, with the mic-lead, into making some more noise.) It's thrilling to watch: you're constantly wondering if he'll come crashing down with no safety nets, but he never quite does.

Meg, too, has expanded her armoury to include maracas and bicycle bells, and a pair of mini-toms which she jams between her knees at one point and plays, cross-legged, on the floor. Not satisfied with just one vocal performance (the Peggy Lee-style "In The Cold Cold Night" during which Jack embraces her from behind), she sings "Passive Manipulation" while playing timpani. Yes, they're red and white too.

It's Jack, though, who you keep watching. This is a man who can even make tuning up his guitar ("...E! ...A!") feel as thrilling as Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner", a man who can even make a ukulele seem rock'n'roll.

With a hefty back catalogue behind them, the Stripes have to balance the hits ("Hotel Yorba", "Hardest Button To Button", "Fell In Love With A Girl", and the surprise singalong winner "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself"), with the fan favourites.

If I leave disappointed that we don't get "Jolene", "You're Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)" and "Hello Operator", it's in the knowledge that the folks who came to Alexandra Palace the night after probably did (and that we got something they didn't), and I laugh quietly.

And had someone told me, five years ago, that the most exciting live band on earth would be a divorced couple, led by a maniac who only listens to ancient blues records and only wears three colours, I'd have laughed even louder.

s.price@independent.co.uk

Comments