The White Stripes - Alexandra Palace
And so the mysterious blues warriors return to the country that first embraced them. And what finer a setting to do so than in the grand Alexandra Palace. It’s been a fair journey since the duo first came to these shores prompted by John Peel buying their record because their colours matched that of his football team (Liverpool). Headline slots at Glastonbury and Reading, million selling albums and even a number one single were a fair cry from when they began Britain’s toilet circuit in 2001 to heaving crowds buoyed by an unnatural amount of hype.
Being a particular sucker for hype I toddled along to see them at a pub in Sheffield where they set about deforming my notion of the blues, destroying any lingering Brit pop hangover I had and nearly tearing the roof off the club. It was a riotous gig that will live long in the memory and tonight seems about time to bring the journey full circle.
Before there is time for any more smug reminiscing about being there ‘back in the day’, out they storm looking as strikingly weird as ever. Jack is like a cross between Zoro and General Custer in his black top hat, military jacket and pointy beard/tash combo, while Meg is more a mix of Wednesday Adams and a manga character. Agitated and uncomfortable, Jack stalks the stage like a matador before throwing on his vintage red and white Airline guitar. He strikes away the fuzzy opening chords of Blue Orchid, a black curtain tumbles to reveal a red, black and white backdrop and we’re away.
Closer examination of the backdrop reveals a mountainous valley with a glowing white apple hanging in the middle of it. Its significance is puzzling and way over my head (something to do with Adam and Eve? Sin? Who knows?) These sorts of conundrums go with the territory and tonight soon throws up another when Jack pauses and introduces himself and his sister (yeah right) as Three Quid and Penny Farthing. Some kind of in joke surely?
It is hard to stay cynical for too long, though, as they launch into a set of demonic blues and classy garage pop. The red and white uniform begins to make sense, not at all gimmicky and the same emotions that caused me to first fall in love with them start to stir once more.
By now Jack is in full demonic preacher mode. He’s on his knees howling through Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down as if making his own pact at the crossroads. With barely time to draw breath he’s breaking out of Cannon to scream with primal fervour John The Revelator (an old spiritual song) and later thunders out a vicious version of Black Jack Davy (an old folk song from the 1920s). It’s like something from another planet, let alone another era.
The possessed bluesman incarnation is interspersed with White’s new found knack of writing incredibly catchy pop melodies. My Doorbell is an early taster before he hops over to the marimba for a welcome breather with The Nurse and gets us all jigging again with Hotel Yorba. It’s a pleasant reprieve for the more casual observers beginning to look lost throughout all the howling. Pah – the fools, they don’t know what they’re witnessing.
Whether it's the cavernous size of the imposing old building or the sheer bewilderment of that element of the crowd clearly more familiar with the more recent chart friendly White Stripes, but the intensity of proceedings doesn’t seem to be fizzing through the air in the way the performance deserves. Jack’s voice rattles around and the ferocious energy from the stage starts to fizzle out the farther back you go. There also seems to be a worrying beard stroking, middle-aged minority who've infiltrated the crowd, dampening the spirits a bit with their rigid restraint. If anyone deserves an asbo it’s these bastards.
One thing it is impossible not to get caught up in is the relationship between Jack and Meg. It is central to the soap opera. Jack can barely take his eyes off Meg, glaring at her in a way only ex-lovers can. In some parts of America I’m sure that some brothers and sisters do interact like this, but that doesn’t make it natural.
Remember there are no set lists here. No rehearsals either. Everything is spontaneous. A quick nod from Jack here and the odd whisper there and they are instantly into the next song. It’s an incredible understanding that enables them to maintain a breakneck pace and ally Jack’s deep rooted fears about silence on stage during gigs. The relationship also creates a sense of voyeurism. At times they seem like they’re playing to each other. They could be at home playing in their little room. But BAAM. Suddenly something in this fraught pact explodes.
Jack is over at the drum kit glaring at Meg whilst she bangs away in her own little world. He’s not having it, though, and breaks out of Death Letter Blues to yell at her. Thrusting his head into hers he screams with utter contempt “See you grinning in your face, in your face.” It’s a moment that captures the pair’s tense relationship and what is so enthralling about their music and live performances. Jack is not singing to us, he’s screaming at her. We’re voyeurs to this storm. It’s the greatest reality show ever.
What little old Meg has done to deserve this is unclear but she’s not the only one who looks relieved when he finally jerks away from the drum kit and back into Death Letter Blues before tossing his axe away and storming off to a hail of feedback. Meg scurries off after him.
Moments later they’re back and Jack’s looking a bit cheerier. He launches into Black Math and we’re well and truly back on track. Hopping over to the piano he’s taken over by the spirit of Leadbelly for a glorious rendition of St James Infirmary Blues before thrashing out Let’s Shake Hands. Mixing haunting blues standards with blasts of catchy garage rock will surely be Jack White’s trademark, but it is not necessarily what pleases the masses.
That comes with the cathartic opening bom, bom, bom, boms of Seven Nation Army which rejuvenates the wavering fools before Boll Weevil sends both pop tarts and blues snobs home grinning. A little waltz and then Jack takes Meg in his arms and carries her offstage. Magical stuff.
On the way out there is frozen looking man with a megaphone telling anyone who will listen that Jesus lives. If I were a bit sharper I would probably have quipped “Yeah I know mate, I’ve just seen him play Ally Pally.” But I’m not and it takes me the rest of the walk down the hill before it suddenly hits me what I should have said. I think about walking back up the hill but think better of it.
The raw power that one girl on the drums and a boy on the guitar create is still incredible. The Gorillaz can keep their 3D holograms and Coldplay their fireworks because for me The White Stripes are still the most incendiary and vital live band of their generation – even if half the crowd don’t know it tonight. Although probably not the defining homecoming (of sorts) it might have been, it was still a mighty performance by a band at the height of their powers.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:11:35