12 February 2004

The White Stripes

Review - The White Stripes, Alexandra Palace, Wednesday 21 January

Welcome to the world of showbiz.

To be fair, this could have been terrible. In some ways, we expected it to be. It's possible The White Stripes have got big past the point where they still make sense. Really a band like this should be playing every pub venue up and down the land. They should be a revered cult, the kind of band you follow passionately, a badge band the love of which proves you're in the company of someone as nuts about music as you. They shouldn't be on the front page of newspapers, number one in the album charts for weeks on end or instantly selling out multi-thousand venues. That stretches an admittedly thin proposition past a dangerous point. It's tempting to think they've passed their best. Elephant was not the masterpiece the hype promised. Inside that beast there was a really good 10 track LP straining to get out, but if you ask me – not that you did – they’ve never bettered De Stijl.

Yet, despite that, this was an enjoyable night. However big they get, I guess they’ll always be worth seeing. Despite the size of the gig, and the way you felt you were being processed as you waited in one of those queues that wraps around itself while being shouted at about all the things you’re not allowed to do, and despite the office party atmosphere that for once saw that I wasn’t the sole person in a shirt and tie, this was as intimate as any experience you share with several thousand people can be. Huge though the venue was, the White Stripes made an admirable lack of concessions in their act. There was no big backdrop, no big video screens. It was still just the two of them, in their funny clothes, on stage, Meg bashing the drums, Jack treading on a thousand pedals to extract an extraordinary range of sounds from his guitar, at times forgetting there's anyone else there.

There were many highlights. Hotel Yorba still does it for me every time. I’m a grinning, swaying sentimentalist all over again. To follow that with Seven Nation Army, a single so simple it’s genius, almost feels like they’re spoiling us. The other great songs from Elephant, Black Math and The Hardest Button To Button, were out there too, rubbing shoulders with cast iron, ipodded classics like I Think I Smell A Rat and the singalong reclamation of Boll Weevil. Alright, with The White Stripes you’ll always get your duff moments. In The Cold, Cold Night is sweet and gets a cheer, but of course Meg can’t sing, and does anyone need to hear I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself ever again? (But then as a country neophyte I love Jolene, so there they made me happy.) And there is the showbizzy stuff, the ‘we love you, you’re a great audience’ cobblers, and Jack’s ill-advised digressions into Dick Van Dyke territory (Shine on Harvest Moon, for pity’s sake).

But forgive them these excesses. They’re part of what they are. What we have is a good band, perhaps a great band, who have recorded lots of wonderful songs and a few duds. They’re selling records, they’re on your radio, but still they’re just doing what they’ve always done. I’m glad they’re out there and going strong, turning up in unlikely places like Alexandra Palace.

Nice venue, too. Although there were thousands it never felt crowded, and there was ample space at the back to get a drink or something to eat or just avoid the dire support band. I felt embarrassed that I’d never been up to Alexandra Palace. It felt like we were above all of London, and I’d love to have seen it when it was light. I left resolving to go back for a walk and a couple of pints one Sunday. I’d still go and see The White Stripes again too, given the chance. They haven’t blown it yet.

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