Though the White Stripes earned a place beside the Strokes as the most successful band to emerge from the garage revival of the early 2000s, casual listeners often made a few big mistakes when assessing the music of Jack and Meg White, beyond the fact that they had been husband and wife, not brother and sister as was once rumored. Taped in 2005, the Detroit duo’s set for Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” performance showcase gives us a welcome chance to set the record straight.
Let’s start with the blues. The White Stripes were never young punks trampling the storied music of Black America, or, even worse, treating it as a mere platform for yet another hot-shot soloist firing off tasty licks. Their love for and knowledge of the grittiest, gutsiest sounds in the genre ran deep, complementing an equal passion for the rawest, realest country music, far from the Nashville mainstream. As such, they were gleeful champions of what music academic Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America,” which they make abundantly clear during this short, sweet and exquisitely shot six-song set.
From the ferocious field-holler stomp of the opening “Blue Orchid,” which provided the title for the fifth album they were promoting at the time, “Get Behind Me Satan,” the pair seamlessly segues into the most obscure of covers, “Party of Special Things to Do,” from Captain Beefheart’s 1974 set “Bluejeans & Moonbeams.” The former Don Van Vliet loved the blues, too, knowing full well that many of its progenitors were Dadaists and stone-cold freaks, just like him. But the cap’n never pulled off what Jack and Meg accomplished, making that gonzo strangeness fodder for modern-rock radio, MTV and the festival circuit.
Witness, too, the fleeting moment when Jack sits at the piano to deliver the plaintive ballad “Forever for Her (Is Over for Me).” He first gives us an enticing taste of “St. James Infirmary Blues,” a bluesy standard recorded hundreds of times in the last century. Like the Beefheart cover, it makes clear that the White Stripes view themselves as part of a continuum that includes fellow individualists Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Django Reinhardt, but not so much Ol’ Slowhand or Led Zeppelin.
Yes, Jack and Meg were ultra-minimalists, but they always decorated their Spartan grooves with the perfect colorful accents.
Piano? For the drums-and-guitar White Stripes? If that surprises you, again, you’re missing something about this band. Yes, Jack and Meg were ultra-minimalists, but they always decorated their Spartan grooves with the perfect colorful accents, from the tuned bells and bongos Meg plays on “Red Rain” and “As Ugly as I Seem,” to the acoustic guitar, mandolin, and electric hollow-body with slide that Jack picks up while temporarily putting down his trademark red Airline Res-O-Glas.
Ah, that word “color.” Too many dismissed the White Stripes’ black, white and vibrant red palette as visual shtick. And OK, there’s a little of that, with the five roadies in black suits flanking the band like Detroit gangsters, or Jack’s gaucho sombrero and John Waters-like pencil mustache. But heed the attention to the smallest details in their presentation — even the mic screens and cymbal felts on Meg’s Ludwig drums are red! It’s a visual reminder that much of the joy in the music is similarly small, obsessive and brimming with absolutely perfect little touches. As endlessly inspired minimalists, I’d rank the group second only to the Ramones among the all-time greats.
And that brings us to Meg. The biggest and most offensive mistake some make about the duo is thinking Meg was merely along for the ride, and that her devotion to simplicity was because “she could barely play.” In fact, like Tommy and Marky Ramone or Maureen Tucker of the Velvet Underground, her straightforward, primal pulse is essential to the band’s sound and the key ingredient connecting it to the elemental howls of time immemorial. As her long black hair flies around a Sphinx-like expression framed by a white-and-red polka dot scarf, Meg epitomizes all that is cool, weird and wonderful about American music.
But because she almost never spoke in interviews — the more you talk, the less people listen, Meg said — let’s give the last word to Jack. “It was beautifully filmed and the sound quality makes a performance on a regular TV show sound like a wax cylinder recording,” he said of this gig. “No host” — just music — “thank God.” And amen to that.