From Iceland — White Stripes

White Stripes

Published December 5, 2005

White Stripes

Arriving early for the Sunday evening White Stripes show this November, one month after Iceland Airwaves, and 12 hours after a long party night, the whole world looked a 1950s hangover—the scrubby, resolute working man’s hangover in which everyone puts on a sour face and combs their hair and goes out despite the headache and depression and regret.
Continuing the 50s theme were giant Coca-Cola signs—Jack White has described Coke as “the tastiest beverage created by man” and has written a song for Coca-Cola.
A key reason for the hangover feeling in the building was a Friday night Jakobínarina warm-up gig at Sirkus that sold most of the Rolling Stone doubters on the young band’s talent. From that raucous gig, the weekend spiralled out of control. Now, on Sunday, a good number of people seemed to have come to the realisation that they had overdone the late nights, the drinking, and the rock and roll—had someone broken out an organ and some hymnals, a high percentage of the crowd may have found their saviour.

Sadly, the person with the worst hangover in the building must have been Jakobínarina’s sound man. When the band came on, cocky and arrogant as ever, they sounded like they were being amplified by computer speakers. The separation of rhythms that makes their sound was indistinguishable, and watching them jump and dance to such a mucked up sound instantly turned into a parody of their honest, charming usual performances.
For eight songs in a row, the sound muddled, and Jakobínarina gave the show their harshest critics have been waiting for: they looked and sounded like the worst possible Happy Mondays impersonators—only much flatter.
To the band’s credit, and to the credit of a few of their more loyal fans, a driving last couple of numbers pushed along by drummer Sigurður’s unbelievable powerhouse performance managed to actually turn the tide. Their last two songs, songs that even their fans didn’t really know, were the strongest of the set, and managed to undo the sabotage done to them by the sound man.
Still, during the intermission, when I walked around, questioning the crowd, many of whom had arrived early to see the hottest young band in Iceland, I found that some damage had been done. Of ten people I asked, eight said that they would not attend a show to see Jakobínarina based on their White Stripes opening performance. An earlier glowing review of a Jakobínarina show in the Grapevine described the band as Iceland’s NSYNC. For many in the local rock community, getting a gig opening for the White Stripes was tantamount to playing on MTV—essentially, a lot of the crowd felt the young band was over-hyped. Something Jakobínarina have not asked for, but something they may have a tough time living down—unless they can convince some of the nay sayers to see them at the small-venue party shows that have been the highlight of the Reykjavík nightlife this year.

Genuinely annoyed by the way Jakobínarina were short-changed with their sound system, and wary of any band with a dress code and Coca-Cola contract, I was prepared to loathe the White Stripes. When Jack White stormed the stage dressed as a slightly eccentric Spanish horse trainer and I noticed his expanded waistline, and his gorgeous electric promptly went out of tune, I felt a touch of schadenfreude.
As Jack glared at Meg after Blue Orchid, their first song, and brought down the vibe by doing his own take on John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, I was looking forward to an evening of superstar meltdown. A pair of top-level British wanker rugby players suddenly appeared to my left, also interested in watching the meltdown, and began shouting “Rubbish,” after each tune. Icelandic girls raised their cell phones to take photos—an indicator that they were here only to see a celebrity, and were bored with the music.
What was the conversion? When did these two early thirties artist-types having a seemingly semi-public jam session in front of 5000 strangers get everybody moving? And why did everyone leave with such affection for the White Stripes, and for the blues and American roots music they draw from? How did Jack and Meg White turn into our best friends, into sex symbols, and into our favourite artists in two hours?
It wasn’t through the songs that I expected the crowd to love—when Dead Leaves came piping through as the third number, when Jack and Meg nailed that and then blended it into Passive Manipulation, not all that many people were convinced. It wasn’t until Jolene that the crowd seemed to realise why they came.
As the Stripes kept up the blistering pace, things started to go wrong on stage, and, for those not fully into the vibe, it was the things that went wrong that built up such appeal.
By the fifth song, the over-the-top catchy My Doorbell, it was obvious to more than a few that Mr White’s guitar chord was blown. Somehow, though, this wasn’t obvious to the three guitar techs that he had standing by. This began a revolving guitar number—Jack would shout out instructions to the guitar techs, who seemed to be just barely intelligent enough to refrain from crapping themselves onstage, and the guitar techs nodded and ran around, often forgetting the key instruction, stopping, and returning after Jack had finished the next number to get the instruction again.
This, coupled with the fact that Jack had removed his Spanish waistcoat and was no longer concealing his notable girth in the waist—he now looks like a slightly dangerous young suburban American father—didn’t just provide comic relief. It provided what Jack White has always needed, and what Meg White usually helped him reach—accessibility. As Jack White barrelled through hit after hit, jumping from piano to acoustic to slide guitar, screaming now and then, he didn’t look so much like a cocky show off as much as… a talented, gutty—in both senses of the word—artist.
The White Stripes had fully converted the audience when they reached into their archive and broke out one of their older, more emotionally bare numbers, The Big Three Killed My Baby. When the guitars failed on this song, and when the crowd failed to respond—the Big Three predated Elephant, the big hit in Iceland, and the song isn’t quite as accessible as their more recent hits—the air was suddenly deflated. While the lull only lasted two songs, the White Stripes managed to put together a powerhouse lull—the crowd and band were so obviously out of sync that when Jack stormed offstage, more than a few of us thought he might not come back.
More miraculous than the 11-song encore, and the fact that the White Stripes kept 5000 fans going on a solid roll with two minimalist musicians and a couple of spotlights, may be the fact that in a seven-minute break, the guitar tech for the Stripes couldn’t figure out how to replace ONE FAULTY GUITAR CHORD.
When Jack White returned to the stage, picked up his electric and heard nothing but static and looked over at the guitar tech, one couldn’t help but notice his excessive biceps—he looked not unlike South Park’s depiction of Satan, or, to paraphrase an Icelandic musician who was standing next to me and watching the quick glare Jack White gave his guitar tech, he looked like he might hit something so hard we would all feel it tomorrow.
But despite his physique, and well-reported Detroit beat-down of a fellow musician, Jack kept his cool, switched to mandolin and keys and acoustic, until his electric was finally ready… at which point he promptly broke a string.
Again, the obstacles were part of the charm. With a broken string Jack White blared through Hardest Button to Button, and drove home another six tunes, closing on Red Rain.
As I drove home, my phone beeped constantly with fan messages about the show. Even the most cynical of us couldn’t deny the power of the performance—it was the closest that rock had gotten to religion that many of us could remember, though different fans had different reasons for this. One told me that Jack White was like the ultimate preacher—inexhaustible and dangerous and full of what was either holy spirit or the other kind. Another told me that he had spent the entire show watching the well-proportioned Meg drum and he believed she was an angel.

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