Following the Stripes’ June 10 headlining appearance at the 12th Annual Music Midtown in Atlanta — the band’s lone performance in the U.S. before kicking off a tour in late July — it remains clear the group’s minimalist preoccupations are both a boon and burden live. As a consequence, the Stripes’ set was a bit of an uneven tear through songs spanning the duo’s five-album catalog.
It was 10 p.m. and the edge of Tropical Storm Arlene was laying down a steady mist as the thousands-strong crowd edged towards a stage nestled in the parking lot of the Atlanta Civic Center. Jack kicked right in to a bluesy squall — a sure tribute to Georgia’s own Blind Willie McTell and the 12-string “Statesboro Blues” — and he stalked around Meg’s drum kit upon his entrance. With his black bolero outfit, stringy hair, and pencil-thin mustache, Jack rates second only to Bob Dylan in terms of appearing both creepy and anachronistic, while Meg gives off an air of indifference as she performs her metronomic duties.
The crowd’s attention established, the Stripes kept at the jugular, first with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” then “Blue Orchid,” the first single off Get Behind Me Satan. As soon as the Stripes amped the crowd with these two sneering spirals, Meg performed “Passive Manipulation,” her spotlight ballad from Satan. Further Satan-ic verses followed, with Meg on bells for the greasy, gnashing slide guitar showcase of “Red Rain.” His brim pulled down, Jack played to his fretboard, not the front row, with many of his falsetto yelps aimed at the unseen.
At this point the Stripes entered new instruments in to the mix, with Jack taking to a weather-detuned piano for “My Doorbell,” except played with sharper, more agitated notes than on Satan. A quick “Hotel Yorba” was then wedged in — with the crowd picking up the “well, it’s 1, 2, 3, 4, take the elevator” chant with campfire spirit. Then Jack warbled on electric piano throughout a cover of Dylan’s “Lovesick,” veering it awfully close to the Doors’ “Alabama Song.” Playing mandolin and using his best Loretta Lynn imitation, Jack sang “Little Ghost” towards Meg from a microphone near her kit, then followed with the equally flitting “We’re Going to Be Friends.”
This is where the shtick ran thin. The whole “family affair” angle plays well in print, but a large-scale live show comes across like band practice without some attention to the bleachers. For counterbalance, the set list stomped through “The Hardest Button to Button” and “Black Math,” followed more tentatively by “The Nurse” and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” before the band exited the stage. Of the entire set, the encore was the most blistering — a choppy, frenetic swing through “Ball and Biscuit,” “Seven Nation Army,” and a reprise of “Passive Manipulation” sung by Jack during “Screwdriver.”
The spontaneous, unpolluted, rough-edges-and-all, recorded-in-ten-days mentality that fuels the Stripes’ studio efforts is charming. Yet the same agenda doesn’t completely translate live. Admittedly, part of the allure of the White Stripes is the suspense of how much ringing can they wring from their minimalist setup, but they may soon be maxed out. The rushed delivery, sometimes awkward transitioning, and insular aspects of the performance demanded some patience in Atlanta.
White Stripes setlist, 6/10/05:
“When I Hear My Name”
“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
“Same Boy You’ve Always Known”
“We’re Going to Be Friends”
“The Hardest Button to Button”
“I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”
“Ball and Biscuit”
“Seven Nation Army”
“Screwdriver” / “Passive Manipulation”