It’s no secret that we love the White Stripes around here at B&V. I was delighted to see the band release a deluxe version of their landmark 2003 album Elephant in celebration of it’s 20th anniversary. Included in Elephant – Deluxe is the original album and a concert recording from that tour recorded in Chicago. In the words of fellow Detroit native Bob Seger, I can only say, “20 years now, where’d they go, 20 years, I don’t know…” It seems like this record came out yesterday.
This deluxe set comes amidst some White Stripes controversy of late. I don’t feel I can post about the White Stripes without addressing the Elephant in the room. Apparently some idiot journalist wrote an article and made the audacious claim that White Stripes’ drummer Meg White was a terrible drummer. This of course caused a bunch of blow back on Twitter for the idiot. Leader of the White Stripes Jack White and Tom Morello, amongst others, immediately came to the defense of Meg. Let me state for the record that we here at B&V love Meg White’s drumming. She’s not going to get fancy like Neil Peart. She’s not all over the drum kit like Keith Moon. But her bedrock drumming was the foundation that allowed guitarist/singer Jack White to soar. Without Meg White’s drumming, there is no White Stripes. Her drumming is fierce, primal and visceral. Having listened to the White Stripes’ catalog thousands of times over the years and having seen them live I can testify (in my not so humble opinion) she’s one of the best drummers I’ve seen. You won’t see her floating in the air like Tommy Lee but she lifted me out of my seat more than once. Compare Jack’s solo work with his work in the White Stripes and you’ll hear the difference. And we dig most of Jack’s solo work, most recently Entering Heaven Alive.
I think I’m like most people, I discovered the White Stripes when their third album White Blood Cells broke big on the strength of the singles “Fell In Love With A Girl” and “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground.” Like many bands, it was the magical third album that broke them big. The Stripes were riding the then current wave of “garage rock” that was supposed to have been to the 2000s what Grunge was to the 90s. I totally hear the “garage rock” part of the Stripes sound. With only the amazing Meg White on drums and Jack White on guitar/keyboards/vocals they were minimalists (to a degree). What I loved about the White Stripes is they have an old school, blues based sound. Most of what they did was rooted in the blues and we’re on record as loving the blues and blues rock here at B&V. Jack White plays the guitar with the grit and dexterity of Bluesmen from a generation (or two) before him. He made no secret of the fact that one of his biggest influences was legendary Bluesman Son House, who has influenced so many who came after him.
I purchased White Blood Cells shortly after I saw the White Stripes on an MTV Awards show, which is embarrassing but I wasn’t listening to the radio that much in those days. The Rock Chick had heard these guys on the alternative rock station in town and was all in. I knew White Blood Cells was the White Stripes’ third album but for some reason I didn’t do my usual “buy the back catalog” thing. I didn’t go out and purchase either The White Stripes (their debut) or De Stijl (their second and perhaps my favorite album). It would appear I was only putting my toe in the water on the Stripes. But then Elephant came out and all of that changed. The first track I heard was “Seven Nation Army” and that’s all it took. I was at the record (er, CD) store the day the album came out with my dollars in my hand.
After hearing Elephant those 20 years ago, I was blown away. It’s a blues rock bonanza. Jack’s musical vision finally came to full fruition. There were so many great songs on the record. “Ball And A Biscuit,” “The Hardest Button To Button” and the aforementioned “Seven Nation Army” are rock n roll standards in my book. “The Air Near My Fingers” and “Hypnotize” are epic guitar freakouts. “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” was a piano driven, almost country rock thing that was great. Meg took a turn on vocals for the torch song, “In The Cold, Cold Night” and I loved it. Elephant, in a word, is the perfect White Stripes album. It’s what catapulted them in my mind from a curiosity to a great rock n roll band.
But beyond that, it was on that tour that I saw them in concert for the first time. OMG, as the kids say. They played venerable Memorial Hall over in Kansas City, KS. It seats only 3500 people and as I recall there wasn’t an empty chair. Memorial Hall has seen great acts over the years: Pink Floyd played Dark Side Of The Moon in it’s entirety there, 5 months before the album had come out… Led Zeppelin played two shows there in one day, and no they weren’t booed off stage. Memorial is a small venue but it’s a great place to see a show…not a bad seat in the house. I saw the Rossington Collins Band there but I’m off topic. The Stripes walked on stage with what appeared to be a body guard – a giant man in a three piece, pinstripe suit and a fedora. The stage was simple, just Meg’s drum kit and the amps and Jack’s guitars. They proceeded to bring down the sky. What a concert. I remember hearing their Dolly Parton cover “Jolene” for the first time that night. Apparently they played the Bob Dylan song “Isis” and for the life of me I don’t recall that. Jack strapped on a beat up, gray, wide-body guitar and played a blues riff that sounded eternal and then launched into a song I didn’t recognize. It turns out it was “Death Letter,” a Son House cover. Jack hopped around the stage, always close to Meg’s drum kit and they rocked the house that night. The energy on that stage was contagious… I was convinced Jack White was an unhinged genius that night. I walked out of that concert knowing that the White Stripes were one of the greatest bands of all time. And, yes, the next day I went out and bought their first and second albums to complete my collection (at the time).
With the deluxe version of Elephant the White Stripes have included a full concert, from Chicago, from that very same tour that I saw them on for the first time. I really liked the Stripes “official” live album, Under Great Northern Lights. It’s great, but it didn’t make my list of the greatest live albums ever. This live concert from Elephant – Deluxe would qualify to enter the discussion amongst the greatest live albums. The energy I experienced in Memorial Hall 20 years ago translate right through the speakers. From hard rocking songs “When I Hear My Name” and “Seven Nation Army” to the quiet moments like Meg’s turn on vocals “In The Cold, Cold Night” or “We’re Going To Friends” (that Jack says was written in the bedroom of a girl named Susie Lee who didn’t care about him at all) they just kill these performances. The setlist is similar but different from when I saw them on this tour. I was knocked out by the Dylan cover on this set, “Lovesick” from Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. They include “Stop Breaking Down” written by Robert Johnson (and covered by the Stones) that they’d included on their debut album. And then threw in another Robert Johnson cover “Stones In My Passway.”
There is so much rock n roll, blues and good times on this live disc it makes this Elephant – Deluxe set absolutely worth the price of admission. I’ve owned the album for 20 years and I’m buying this again just for the live show. This is a must hear, must have. The White Stripes were such a great band and their performances were legendary. I only saw them twice but it was enough to still make me long for Meg White to return from the wilderness, grab Jack by the hand and rock.
Cheers! And Jack, I knew plenty of women like Susie Lee…