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Thursday, August 11, 2005


The White Stripes' All-Ages Hellride

OK, it's time for me to play rock critic again.

Through a series of not-so interesting events I wound up in the second row of last night's White Stripes concert at the Keller Auditorium. This is the second time I've seen the band. The last time they swung through Portland I was sitting the second to last row in the uppermost balcony of the Keller.

Pretty kooky? Sure. Even kookier was the crowd up front. Mixed in among the teens and 20-somethings was a gaggle of what at least looked like Portland's elite. Was that commissioner Sam Adams sitting next to me or just some random guy who looked like him? What was the deal with the Wall Street broker-ish father who spent the whole time staring at the crowd rather than the stage? And the story behind the rock star couple that brought along their two daughters and dressed them in matching White Stripes uniforms? Along with candy-cane colored dresses they had lollypop earrings. The younger daughter, maybe 6, looked absolutely terrified the entire time.

And not without good reason. Creepy tapestries depicting a bleached jungle flanked the stage. A 3-story backdrop had a bleeding-heart apple surrounded by photos of screeching peacocks. Statues of religious icons and cult heroes stood on the band's vintage amps next to bone-white palms. Seashell lights on the edge spat pale light at the black floor. In short, it looked like Eden redecorated by Lucifer's interior designer.

Then out pops Jack White dressed up like a vengeful 18th century undertaker. There's a faded top hat on his head and a long black coat draping down to his feet; a row of badges and ancient military awards dangling from his hip. The White Stripes cut into "Get Behind Me Satan" with White tearing into his ancient guitar and wailing like a lovesick demon. Over at the drum kit Meg is already working her "why do good girls like bad boys" shtick.

Not a scene for impressionable tots but there they are, front row center. The younger daughter is bug-eyed, her old sister is nodding her head like an experienced, unimpressed hipster and their parents are doing a waltz behind them. The Sam Adams look-alike spends the entire time ignoring everything and staring blankly at White. No emotion. By the end of the night a college girl will jump in front of him and bounce around like a top. All she'll receive in return is a polite nod, sending her storming back to her seat.

The White Stripes' live sets are blistering. As little time as possible is spent dinking around between songs which instead bleed into one another through feedback and improvised guitar solos. White was in full-throttle, jilted lover mode and stormed around the stage spitting and screaming like the human embodiment of sexual frustration. His head looks like it's about to explode three songs in as he performed Meg's "Passive Manipulation."

And take their later rendition of "I Think I Smell a Rat." Jack heads over to a mike facing Meg. Staring her straight in the eye he bites his teeth and sings "I think I smell..." She holds his gaze before breaking away from this "Stare Down" and rolls her eyes down to her drums. He let's out a kamikaze "...RAT" and looks like he's about to tear the set apart.

Are these pathos fake? Hey, at least these two were once married. If it this all an act it's still a neat one. Meg spends the hour and a half set singing along and acting simultaneously coy and terrified. It's a blues-rock soap opera at the gates of an imitation hell.

For the encore Jack takes a seat at a piano for "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)." Meg steps away from the drums and sets in the middle of the stage, on the floor with her knees in her arms. The stage is bathed in red light. Jack's in a white spotlight and his back is to her. For years everyone from critics to Lindsey Lohan in Freaky Friday have pleaded with him to ditch her and get a real band- that she's holding him back. What these naysayers don't realize though is that, like most movies, it ain't the special effects that matter, it's the script. If it ever happens, and maybe it'll be soon, this is a moment that perfectly sums up the band to date.

The White Stripes end the night with their typical closer: a cover of Leadbelly's "Boil Weavil." The crowd sings along, clapping all the way. There's no telling what the long dead folk singer would make of this scene but at least it's earnest...or seemingly so. Meg and Jack, hand in hand take a bow and end the night with a tossed guitar pick. Neither of the two sisters catches it. Instead another "not yet of voting age" strumpet steps in and snags it. The hellfire stage, the underaged groupies, the strange crowd, if you were to take Neil Goldschmidt, lock him in a lead box and toss him in the middle of Death Valley, I wonder if this is what his hallucinations would look like.

And so ends probably the most unsettling live show I've ever seen. And this is coming from someone who's seen Matchbox 20 in concert.

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